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Sustainable Agriculture

U.S. rice industry committed to taking proactive stance


By Carroll Smith
Editor
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Almost three years ago, buyers in the rice industry were getting requests from end users about sustainability and U.S. rice farming sustainability practices. Today, sustainable agriculture has become a buzzword, especially with consumers.

To define what sustainability means for U.S. rice production and ensure a long-term and viable future for American rice production, the USA Rice Federation established a Sustainability Task Force, chaired by Newport, Ark., rice producer Jennifer James, to lead the way in developing a rice industry sustainability program.

Other participants in the task force include producers, millers, merchants and academic and industry advisers.

“We want to be involved in defining sustainability for the rice industry ourselves instead of having someone define it for us,” James explains. “We meet a lot via conference calls, but we also came together in July in Dallas at the Business Meetings. We’ll also get together again at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in December.”

Field To Market Membership

One of the first things the task force accomplished was becoming a member of Field to Market, which is made up of a diverse group of members, including commodity groups, food companies, grain buyers and conservation and nature type groups, such as Ducks Unlimited and the World Wildlife Fund. According to its Web site (www.fieldtomarket.org), Field to Market defines itself as “a diverse alliance working to create opportunities across the agricultural supply chain for continuous improvements in productivity, environmental quality and human well being. The group provides collaborative leadership that is engaged in industry-wide dialogue, grounded in science and open to the full range of technology choices.”

“One of the main reasons we were interested in being a part of Field to Market was so that rice could be included in the Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator,” James says. “This is an online calculator located on their Web site. It’s an educational tool that allows farmers to input information about their fields, cropping practices, soil types and all sorts of agronomic and field work details.”

The calculator then shows them how their sustainability performances in terms of land use, energy use, water use, soil loss and greenhouse gas emissions compare with state and national averages.

“These results are not used for anyone else’s information but the farmer’s,” James says. “It just lets the farmer know where he or she stands. For example, if irrigation water usage is way out of line from the average, then a farmer may want to consider ways to make some improvements there, unless it happened to be the result of a drought year. Some of it is common sense, but we hope to see any areas where we can make improvements as an industry.”

Open Discussions Increase

Also, James says working with Field to Market has helped to open up discussions between farmers and end users to help farmers understand what the end users need and help end users get a much better understanding of how U.S. farmers raise rice.

“There is a lot more science to it than what they may have thought earlier,” she says. “Opening up those lines of communications has been a real plus for the industry as a whole.”

In addition to Field to Market, the Sustainability Task Force is involved with the National Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture, or NISA, which is comprised of producers who are taking a whole farm view of sustainability. The task force has had conversations with the Sustainability Consortium as well.

“As a task force, we are trying to stay involved in all of these conversations to help move the definition of sustainability along,” James says. “At this time, there doesn’t seem to be just one definition.”

The USA Rice Federation Sustainability Task Force has a working definition of sustainability, which is as follows: Sustainable agriculture meets current and future societal needs by enhancing agricultural productivity; benefiting human health by supplying safe, affordable, abundant and nutritious food; fostering the economic viability of rural communities and contributing to environmental and wildlife conservation.

“The definition seems to be evolving, and it depends on whose viewpoint you are looking at, too,” James says. “For example, the food companies may have a different objective than, say, the conservation and nature groups.”

Developing Biodiversity Metric

One of the primary challenges that the task force faces is trying to develop a biodiversity metric that will measure and define the good that the rice industry is doing in the sustainability arena in such a way that it can be plugged into a calculator or a report. There are a lot of socio economic factors, such as jobs and quality of life in rural communities, that are difficult to measure as well.

“Biodiversity is really important in rice,” James says. “We would like to have something like this to show our end users that the rice industry is doing a good job and have been for a long time. We just haven’t actually used the word ‘sustainability’ to describe it.”

Although the task force is still developing its own biodiversity metric for rice, the industry did do well in a recently released report conducted by Field to Market. This report analyzes sustainability trends on a national scale for U.S. rice, corn, cotton, potato, soybean and wheat production from 1980-2011.

The latest results show that the rice industry is producing more rice with fewer resources. Rice has demonstrated significant progress in all measures of resource efficiency per hundredweight of rice produced with decreases in land use (35 percent), soil erosion (34 percent), irrigation water applied (53 percent), energy use (38 percent) and greenhouse gas emissions (38 percent).

“The findings from this report demonstrate that rice producers have made progress in producing more rice with fewer resources,” James says. “As an industry, we are committed to increasing rice production and yield to meet growing food demand, while at the same time, preserving natural resources. This study highlights the progress that has been made and serves as the basis for expanding upon our knowledge of practices that can contribute to future resource efficiency gains.”

MVPs – Most Valuable Practices

Some of the sustainable rice production practices (MVPs) that research, Extension and industry organization personnel develop and promote and rice producers take advantage of include water management and wildlife habitat, cultivar enhancement, N-ST*R soil nitrogen (N) test for rice, no-till rotation, rice disease management and water-saving irrigation methods.

According to Dr. Steve Linscombe, Resident Coordinator, LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station, Regional Director, Southwest Region, “Cultivar enhancement is one of the fundamental aspects of improving sustainability of rice production. If you can increase yield per acre with a new rice cultivar, then this will lower the amount needed of any production input from a per unit of grain produced standpoint.

“Another way to look at it is that it takes a certain amount of fertilizer, water, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc. to produce an acre of rice regardless of yield,” he adds. “If a new variety will increase yields by five percent with the same inputs, then the amount of each of those inputs needed per pound of rice produced is lowered a proportional amount, simply by growing the new variety. Also, if a new cultivar has high levels of disease resistance such that a fungicide is not necessary, this can be viewed as an improvement in sustainable production.”

One fairly new tool – N-ST*R soil nitrogen test for rice – that helps farmers achieve sustainable rice production was developed by Dr. Trenton Roberts at the University of Arkansas and other rice fertility scientists.

“The goal of N-ST*R is to predict the ‘correct’ N rate to maximize rice yields and profitability,” Roberts says. “In order for rice production to remain sustainable and profitable, we need to ensure that we are maximizing the efficiency of our inputs – primarily N fertilizer, which can represent as much as 30 percent of the total input costs. As production costs continue to rise, we have to start farming based on profitability and yield optimization. N-ST*R allows a producer to apply a prescription N rate to each individual field rather than an average or standard recommendation that often times may be higher than they need to maximize yield.

“Producers who use N-ST*R can ensure that they are: 1) realizing the full potential of their N fertilizer, 2) achieving the best return to their N investment and 3) avoiding the negative effects of excess N fertilizer application such as increased disease pressure, increased lodging and potential for off-site environmental impacts,” he explains. “We see a wide range in recommendations from the samples that have been processed over the last two years, but, on average, we reduce the N rate by about 50 pounds of N per acre.

“In Arkansas, this means that roughly one-half of the time you see a reduced N rate, and the other one-half of the time the rate is equal to what you would normally apply. In Louisiana, we have seen that N-ST*R reduces the N rate about 75 percent of the time.”

N-ST*R recommendations are currently being made for silt loam and clay soils.

Staying On Track

As rice farmers continue to implement and adopt sustainable rice production practices, the USA Rice Federation Sustainability Task Force continues to carry out its mission, as James describes it, “to develop a program to serve consumer interests in sustainably produced rice products, as well as the rice industry’s interests in farm policy and domestic and international promotion.

“The task force is still in an educational process to make sure that we are steering rice industry sustainability in a favorable way,” James says. “It’s been interesting and fun, and I think we have made progress. We are moving in the right direction and want to stay involved in the sustainability conversation.”

Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or csmith@onegrower.com.


New Waterbird Program Provides Widespread Benefits

The Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP) is a new effort developed in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and our conservation partners PRBO Conservation Science, Audubon California and The Nature Conservancy. Offered in six of the rice-producing counties in the Sacramento Valley, the NRCS received nearly 165 applications from rice farmers. The NRCS has committed nearly $7 million to support the 2012 program thus far. They funded 100 percent of the highly ranked applications and some 40 percent of the medium ranked proposals – approximately 125 contracts overall covering about 45,000 acres of rice. This builds upon the successful 2011 pilot program in which $2.7 million was invested across some 70 contracts on approximately 27,000 acres.

WHEP primarily focuses on specific practices that fit well with rice cultivation and are beneficial to a variety of bird species and other wildlife, including:

• Promoting wildlife-friendly straw management practices and returning boards back into the rice boxes after harvest to hold more rainwater.

• Enhancements of nesting habitat by modifying rice check berms and creating nesting islands.

• Enhancing duration and types of fall and early spring habitat created when intentionally flooding fields in the winter season.

• Installing nesting and roost structures for certain non-waterbird species such as hawks, eagles and owls.

• A suite of other traditional conservation practices offered by NRCS for rice and other crop types. Thank you to our primary conservation partners involved in the development of this exciting new conservation program that fits so well with rice farming on working lands. Without the funding and expertise provided by NRCS, this opportunity would not be possible. The expertise of Audubon and PRBO to provide technical assistance to NRCS and monitoring of the conservation practices has been invaluable to supporting implementation and documenting results.

– By Paul Buttner
Black-necked Stilt Reprinted with permission from the California Rice Commission

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