The current pilot project is a win-win opportunity, says O’Brien.

“We want habitat projects which are compatible with existing rice operations,” O’Brien explained. “We want to work with farmers to develop better habitats for birds and other wildlife through economically viable practices for the ranch.”

O’Brien’s participation in the current pilot project involves developing natural habitat areas on the edges of farm fields, including oak and sycamore trees, California grape and Mexican elderberry bushes, and native grasses.

“Creating habitat corridors compatible with existing agricultural operations means no land should come out of production,” O’Brien explained. “Instead of disking and spraying the field edges every year we can create a native habitat for wildlife.”

Buttner points out that rice growers, themselves environmentalists, have a natural appreciation for waterfowl and support efforts to increase wildlife numbers.

“Many growers enjoy their own zoo experience in their rice fields,” Buttner said.

California’s rice industry has similarities to the actor Rodney Dangerfield who claims he does not always gain the respect he deserves. Wildlife in rice-growing areas generates respect for the rice industry.

“The public generally doesn’t realize that California rice is a billion dollar commodity with yields which can fill the Arco Arena (sports venue) in Sacramento eight times annually.”

Consumers often take rice for granted since it is always on the grocery store shelf, Buttner says. Many Californians, especially in the large urban centers, no longer have relatives with a direct connection to agriculture. Consumers aware of the wildlife habitat created by the rice industry build excitement for California rice.

California’s Sacramento Valley has about 2,500 rice growers with about 525,000 acres in production and about 75,000 acres of managed wetlands. The majority of California-grown rice is medium grain. Virtually all of the rice in U.S.-consumed sushi is California grown. California ranks second in the nation behind Arkansas in rice production.

The ongoing rice-wildlife relationship in California is a strong collaboration; both sides understand each other’s value. An estimate from Ducks Unlimited suggests that a one-half reduction in California rice acreage would result in 1.2 million fewer ducks in the Sacramento Valley.

About 7 million waterfowl reside in the Pacific Flyway, including about 60 percent of those in the Sacramento Valley.

cblake@farmpress.com