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The Legacy Lives On

Sixth generation California rice farmer thinks outside the box

By Carroll Smith
Editor
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Many years ago, John Browning was one of the first people to raise rice in the heart of the Sacramento Valley. Today, his great grandson, Fritz Durst, is a sixth generation rice farmer on his mother, Jean Armstrong Durst’s, side and fifth generation rice farmer on his father, Oscar Durst’s, side. His father’s family is from the western foothills, which is rain-fed only and primarily known for grain and livestock.

Fritz Durst farms about 2,000 acres of irrigated land and 4,000 acres of dryland, some of which are rolling hills, suitable for his cattle. This family operation is located near Woodland, Calif. Durst began farming with his father after graduating from UC Davis in 1981 and has been farming ever since.

“I had a great relationship with my dad,” Durst says. “His philosophy was ‘learn by doing.’ If I were willing to ask a question, he would give me the answer, but he wasn’t one to throw out tons of advice. He wanted me to figure things out for myself. I think this paid off for me in the long run because I’ve been thinking outside the box for quite some time. For example, around 1990, we were some of the first farmers to stop burning rice straw before it became a regulation.”

The California farmer said they tried it on a limited basis at first and never had any of the problems that were supposed to happen.

“Actually, our soil tilth went way up,” Durst says. “We typically are in a four-year rotation: Two years of rice followed by sunflowers followed by canning tomatoes, then back to rice. My mantra is to try to grow food and seed, but not feed.”

In the late ‘90s, Durst was growing wheat, sunflowers and several different kinds of beans for seed. At that time, the northern Sacramento Valley was having a problem with blast in rice, so there was a need to find new areas to grow rice for seed. It occurred to Durst that although rice seed had not been produced in his area in the past, he was familiar with the concept since he was already growing other crops for seed.

“I had my rice rotation set up and knew how to grow crops for seed, so I decided to give it a try,” he says. “Now we grow about 700 acres of M-206 for rice seed. I think of it as a value-added approach for my operation. We grow one kind of seed so we only have to clean up for inspection once. Because we are already in the seed mode, we know that after finishing a field we have to clean up the harvester, and we never dump into a truck without first inspecting it. We also make a fungicide application to make sure that we are not carrying any seed-borne diseases.”

Addressing Challenges

Like other rice-growing states, California has weed problems, too. Durst says the challenge now is that resistant biotypes, such as lateseason watergrass and rough-seeded bulrush, are developing.

“Early on, one herbicide will take care of one or the other, but not both,” he says. “We look at field history and perhaps focus on the bulrush first, then hopefully deal with the watergrass later on. My work associate, Garth Williams, helps me with the thought process, and we are always trying to rotate herbicides and rotate fields. One thing that I have learned from growing some organic crops (not rice) is to think differently about how I approach challenges.”

Oftentimes, Durst grows a cover crop, such as purple vetch intermixed with Brassica (a type of mustard) after harvesting tomatoes and before going into rice to capture nitrogen. In the spring, he incorporates all of this nitrogen into the top six inches of his soil.

“The M-206 that I grow loves nitrogen, so I get really good rice yields by doing this,” Durst says.

Water Benefits Crops/Environment

In addition to overseeing the farm’s production, Durst serves as president of Reclamation District No. 108 (RD 108), which was established in 1870 and delivers water to about 50,000 acres of farmland.

“Our district is flat,” he says. “Since there is very little fall, we are able to recycle the water. About 25 percent of the water that we apply to the fields every year is recycled water. This helps us to establish fantastic water-efficiency numbers.”

Durst notes that all of the big non-governmental organizations did a water efficiency study where they looked at what goes in and what goes out. When they took the water used and divided it by how many acres that farmers irrigated, the number came out to about 3.3 acre-feet of water used by the whole Valley.

“This is a phenomenally efficient number,” he says. “If you consider the pounds of food produced, we grow a lot of food for that amount of water. And it’s not just about pounds of food. It’s about fish; it’s about wildlife. Our rice fields attract all of the birds traveling down the Pacific Flyway. The Sacramento Valley is a critical component in the fall and winter for food for these birds.” After harvest, some farmers reflood their fields and mash the straw down into the mud with rollers so it will decompose.

“When we started using rice water decomp, as we call it, the birds can now enjoy those fields during November and December in addition to January and February when water was out there anyway because of the rain,” he explains. “In fact, northern California is working with the Audubon Society to try to have some incentives for farmers to flood even earlier, maybe August, for the shore birds.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, RD 108 also benefits the Chinook salmon and other anadromous fish (those fish that live as adults in salt water and spawn in fresh water).

Cesar Blanco, Water & Fisheries Resources, noted in October 2008, “RD 108 held a dedication ceremony to celebrate the completion of a state-of-the-art fish screen project located on the Sacramento River….This fish screen project consolidated three of RD 108’s existing unscreened diversions into a new screened diversion, known as the Emery Poundstone Pumping Plant….The screen openings allow water flow to irrigation pumps while keeping fish out and permitting them to safely pass-by the water diversion.”

Durst notes that all of the water districts are looking forward and working together along with the non-governmental organizations to see if a pond can be built that would catch water that typically runs out of the Golden Gate and gets used by nobody.

“The idea is that the pond would allow us to have multiple uses from the water, which is the way it ought to be,” Durst says. “I think we are making some progress with these organizations. Before, they just viewed us as rice farmers. Now they realize that we are good guys, and this symbiotic relationship is beneficial for everyone.”

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

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