When California passed a law phasing out rice straw burning in the Sacramento Valley to improve air quality, there was more honking, squawking and thrashing among rice farmers than a gaggle of geese lifting off a rice paddy.

A little more than a decade later, smoke plumes last winter were as rare as a mini-pickup at a farmers' cafe in Arbuckle, Calif., at lunch time. Very few rice fields from the 540,000 acres of 2004 Sacramento Valley rice crop were set ablaze. However, it was not necessarily due to the law.

The law permits 25 percent of the fields to be burned annually if deemed necessary for disease control or other reasons. However, growers say it takes “an act of Congress” to get a burn permit today. It is not worth the hassle. However, this is no big deal because burning has all but become an archaic rice-farming dinosaur like the mule-drawn plow. Producers have developed viable alternatives, one of which has resulted in wintertime income, duck hunting clubs.

Rice straw burning is at most a smoldering ember of an issue.

Many rice growers like Steve Butler in Robbins, Calif., and Mike De Wit of Davis, Calif., are too busy in the fall getting ready for the arrival of hunters and ducks on their farms to lament the loss of rice straw burning.

Duck season typically opens in mid-October and closes the end of January. Duck hunters are willing to pay as little as $1,500 to as much as $5,000 or more per person per season for the privilege of hunting these new duck habitats spawned from the rice burning ban. Before winter flooding and more growers getting into hunting clubs, it generally cost a lot more than that to be a member of a duck club.

Nevertheless, the lower rates with the more hunting opportunities is no small off-season income if there are 3 duck blinds per 160 acres of flooded rice paddies.

Costs mount

However, this added winter income does not make up for the extra money it has cost California rice growers to move away from burning to other methods of straw disposal.

It cost about $40 per acre to prepare fields to winter flood and from $12 to $20 per acre foot for waterfowl water. It costs only $3 per acre to burn rice straw. The loss of the burn option is costing valley growers $60 million to $80 million per year, money directly out of the black ink side of the ledger. However, Butler, De Wit and others readily admit it has turned out to be the some of the best money the industry has ever spent.

The rice straw burning phase out has turned out to be a public relation coup all the money in the world could not buy. It has turned Sacramento Valley rice growers from air polluting scalawags in the public's eye to environmentalists to envy for providing massive new winter wetlands for birds.

California's historical, annual 500,000 acres of rice has long been habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds in the Pacific Flyway during the spring and summer. Replacing rice burning with winter paddy flooding has added an average of 275,000 acres of what the industry likes to call “surrogate” wetlands during the critical winter months. Some rice fields are flooded for up to eight months of the year, becoming “temporary” wetlands with enormous significance to bird populations wintering and breeding in California's Central Valley, according to a recently released report commissioned by the California Rice Commission. Without the flooded rice fields, there would be only about 80,000 acres of Sacramento Valley wetlands available in the winter.

By not burning, the report estimates 60,000 tons of waste grain are left after harvest for waterfowl and other birds that would not be there if fields were burned.

Duck numbers double

The result of this transformation away from burning has resulted in increases in the populations of many water-dependent species. According to Paul Buttner, manager of environmental affairs for the California Rice Commission, the duck population alone has doubled since the burning phase out began.

“Duck hunters will tell you there are fewer ducks. However, what is happening is that there is less likelihood of a duck flying in front your shotgun now because there is simply more habitat for the ducks to spread out,” he said.

For a variety of reasons, wintering of waterfowl in California declined through the 1980s, but that trend was reversed with proactive management of both natural breeding and wintering waterfowl habitat by state and federal agencies. Winter flooding of rice has enhanced that effort. An estimated 3 million to 6 million ducks, geese and swans winter in California. The total water bird count has been estimated as high as 10 million to 12 million.

Waterfowl habitat enhanced by winter flooding has been so successful, duck hunters and bird watchers say the waterfowl habitat south of the Sacramento Valley in the Grasslands of Merced County and the Tulare Lake Basin get fewer ducks and other waterfowl because of the abundant wetlands habitat north of Sacramento.

Butler agrees, but he also believes the California duck and geese populations will continue to increase in the Pacific Flyway with the continuation of winter flooding in rice country. As the waterfowl populations increase, the lifelong duck hunter said more ducks will eventually venture back into areas in the southern part of the state.

Not enough hunters?

“The overall population of ducks in the state will, I believe, continue to increase,” predicts Butler, who added that the issue will eventually be not enough licensed California hunters to manage the duck population.

Like many rice growers, De Wit grew up hunting ducks. “My dad carried me to the blind on my first duck hunting trip. We have hunted all our lives and over the years have had friends come and hunt. It was not until after the rice straw burning phase out began and we started flooding in winter that we started a formal duck hunting club, charging people to hunt.”

The De Wit's club is called El Grato Grande Duck Club. It has been in operation for seven years with 24 member blinds.

“We are not making money with the duck club, but by charging people to hunt it helps us offset some of the cost of flooding and the costs associated with no longer being able to burn,” said De Wit.

Butler, like De Wit, says they are farmers first and duck hunting club operators second.

“Years ago when we harvested the last field of rice, my dad used to hand the foreman a box of matches and said ‘burn the fields’ and he would head to Nevada to deer hunt,” said Butler.

Most farmers like to head for the hills, the coast or any place far away from the farm when their last field is harvested in the fall. When you operate a duck hunting operation, that no longer is possible, laments Butler.

“My son and I manage the water during duck season and winter water management is not like it is in the summertime when it is a joy to be out irrigating,” said Butler, whose grandfather bought the place he now farms.

“When it is stormy, you have to batten down the hatches and manage the water flow so there is no damage to the rice paddies,” said Butler.

Burn ban right

Nevertheless, he said banning rice burning “was what I felt was the right thing to do. Anyone who grew up around rice could see the conflict caused by burning so close to Sacramento.

“There has been more than a few times when we were burning fields when people would make nasty gestures as they drove by on the roads,” said Butler.

Butler said by accepting the burning phase out, “I think the industry has taken the right position.

“No question, the burning phase out has been costly, taking some of the profit out of rice farming. Hunting has replaced some of that cost, but certainly not all,” he said.

Butler's duck club has only 12 members for 1,500 acres of rice with one blind per 160 acre. He charges more for his club than De Wit who has 25 members and 3 duck blinds per 160 acres. Their memberships do not change from year to year. Neither advertises for hunters, but some rice growers do. However, Butler added he has very liberal visitor privileges for his members. His members are from the Bay Area or Reno.

“We could probably manage the duck club more intensely; charge more and make more money. However, that is not really our goal with our duck club,” said De Wit. Besides, the De Wits farm in the southern portion of the valley, and it could be Nov. 1 or later before they are finished with rice harvest. They could miss a month or more of duck season.

Flail mow

De Wit agrees with Butler that the industry has made lemonade out of lemons. “Hindsight says it was worth going through the burning phase down. Going through it was not pleasant. It is hard to change your thought process if you have been burning for decades,” said De Wit, adding there is also a lot more management involved in shredding and disking many rice fields.

“What has worked best for us is to flail mow the rice stubble into about 4-inch sections and stubble disk it, making sure it has contacted with the soil four to five inches deep. Then we flood it as soon as possible, keeping the clods covered,” said De Wit.

Butler takes down the stubble like De Wit.

Buttner estimates 75 to 80 percent of valley's acreage is flail mowed and disked and 60 percent of that winter flooded. Those who do not flood with irrigation district water, hope there is enough rainfall to help breakdown the residue. Only few swath and bale.

“Keeping fields flooded during the winter does help with blast, which is becoming more of a problem in California,” Butler noted. Flooding speeds decomposition.

“There are some fertilizer benefits from flooding. When you put on 100 pounds of N in the spring, you are not giving away 20 pounds to decompose a heavy straw residue,” explained Butler.

De Wit says, however, the “the jury is still out if we are gaining nutrients by turning straw back into soil. I am not backing off on N just yet.”

When the burning phase down was mandated by the state, politicians and bureaucrats estimated 60 percent of the straw would be bailed and sold for everything from animal feed to co-generations for electricity to manufacturing building material like “straw board.” Some of those ideas remain alive, but last year only about 5 percent was baled and diverted, primarily for animal feed or for erosion control.

“It would cost us $100,000 to gear up to bale the straw,” said De Wit. There is no market to justify that kind of investment.

Flooding with ducking hunting leases has become the most attractive alternative to getting rid of the straw and mitigating some of the costs of not burning.

Floods 2,000 acres

Butler farms about 2,500 acres of rice in the Robbins area. He floods about 2,000 each winter, 1,500 for the hunting club. He floods another 500 acres for a private club for him and his family and invited guest. Before getting into commercial duck hunting, he typically flooded only about 250 acres for his own personal duck hunting.

“We have always operated a pheasant hunting club since my grandfather bought the ranch in the ‘50s, primarily to entertain the ranch's customers.

“We used to raise a lot of alfalfa and market hay and alfalfa pellets. We would invite customers and suppliers out to hunt,” said Butler.

There remains a pheasant hunt, but it mostly ducks now. “When rice straw burning became an issue, we could see the handwriting on the wall. We also knew professional people from the Bay area would pay $3,000 to $4,000 per season to hunt ducks,” explained Butler on how he started his farm's duck club.

One of the challenges in starting a hunting club was convincing irrigation water companies to deliver winter water, but once that was finalized the Butler hunting club became a reality.

Flooded woodlands of Louisiana and Arkansas are considered the holy grail for duck hunting, but the Sacramento Valley also has a good reputation among avid duck hunters.

The most prestigious area in the valley is what is called the Butte Sink, an area north and west of Sutter Buttes.

“We are on the edge of that area and close enough to the Bay Area and Reno to be attractive to the duck hunters,” said Butler, who allows the hunters to park RV trailers and store quads on the farm. There is also a clubhouse for members to use for meals and socializing.

De Wit and Butler maintain the duck blinds and provide decoys.

Blinds marked

“We normally have to repair or replace blinds because some one runs into them with a tractor. We now have all our fields mapped with GPS and the duck blinds are marked on each map. That has cut down on some of the damage,” said Butler. “I know where the duck blinds are and my son does, too. However, our seasonal farm help may not and that why we have our blinds on GPS maps.”

He still spends $5,000 to $6,000 per year replacing duck blinds.

The biggest expense is winter water, which is about $25,000 per winter. Winter water costs about a third of what he pays for rice growing water during the summer.

“By managing the winter flooding for the ducks along with the cultural benefits of flooding, the cost of the winter flooding pencils well for us. It is an important sideline for us, but it is a sideline. We are farmers first,” said Butler.

Butler seeds his rice levees in the spring with sudangrass for duck hunting. Make that he lets the duck hunters do it.

“I bought a little battery operated seeder and the hunters want to come out and seed the sudangrass with quads. Seepage from the rice germinates the seed,” he said. “I have to be careful when I treat for watergrass during the year. If I nip the Sudangrass, the duck hunters get upset,” he laughed.

Butler once grew Sudangrass commercially so he knows it is a hardy grass. It has a large stalk and does not lodge, which is good for duck habitat.

“It is not an aquatic weed, but it is hardy as the dickens,” he said.

With only a dozen members, Butlers allow daily hunting versus De Wit's club which only allows hunting on weekends and one weekday. Both systems are to allow ducks to stay on the farms' flooded fields.

“If duck cannot land on field and rest without being shot, it is not coming back,” said Butler. “You have to allow them to be here awhile.”

Butler calls himself a rabid duck hunter, but by season's end he is glad to get back to the business of farming.

“I am a fisherman. I wish there was a way to catch and release ducks. There is a whole lot more to the sport of duck hunting that a pile of dead ducks” said Butler.

Butler is fascinated by waterfowl and he thrills at the loud cacophony from an overflight of geese. “I never tire of watching ducks and geese,” said Butler.

Remarkable change

“It has been a remarkable evolution in just the past 12 years since flooding replaced burning. Come back in another 12 years and there will be more than enough waterfowl in the state of California to satisfy everyone,” said Butler. The need then will be for more hunters to manage the population.

“There are 45,000 duck hunters in the state now and that is really not enough,” surmised Butler. “I am encouraged people are still taking up the sport of hunting. A lot of my hunters bring their children out to hunt. I wished the state, Ducks Unlimited and others would encourage more hunting on the refuges. I think it would be beneficial.”

Although surveys show 90 percent of rice farmers hunt themselves or allow winter hunting, Buttner, De Wit and Butler say that is not representative of active hunting.

The survey only asked if flooded rice fields were hunted, said Buttner. “That could mean a farmer taking his son out to fire a few rounds to an active hunting club. The survey was not specific enough as to the levels of hunting on rice farms.”

Butler and De Wit estimate maybe 40 percent of the farms are actively hunted, so there is plenty of room for added hunting.

Butler receives calls from farmers and investors who purchase farms about what it takes to run a duck club. “I tell them it is all consuming and no time off in the winter,” he said. “And you will not get rich running a duck club. It is a lot of work.”

Water availability will always be an issue in California for not only winter flooding, but rice production as well.

“Cost and availability of water is always a concern,” said Butler. For now there is water for both winter-flooded rice paddy hunting and rice production. It has had been a win-win situation few could envisioned when Sacramento Valley rice growers were told to phase out straw burning.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com