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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.