The ‘Rice Checker’

Simple, farmer-built gauge helps augment water management.

mark isbell
The Rice Checker, built and marketed by Arkansas rice producer Mark Isbell, helps growers monitor water levels in rice fields. It is not designed to replace “boots on the ground” when it comes to water management.

By Vicky Boyd

More than 40 years ago, Leroy Isbell, a rice producer near England, Ark., built his first rice water gauge after seeing one in a store in Carlisle, Ark.

“It had a block of Styrofoam on the end to make it float, but it would soften and the turtles ate it,” says Leroy’s son, Chris Isbell, laughing about their original design. “We tried everything. We even filled little pint freezer containers with Styrofoam to keep the turtles from eating it.”

The low-tech device has evolved and been refined over the years, with the current version built of PVC pipe, metal electrical conduit and a toilet bowl float replacing the Styrofoam block.

Mark Isbell, Leroy’s grandson and also a rice producer, is quick to point out that the water gauge is a tool and not intended to replace boots on the ground. But it helps augment water management by providing additional data points, he says.

Growers who drive by their fields several times during the day, for example, can glance over and easily read the large numbers on the gauge to double-check water levels.

The simple design involves a pole made of metal conduit stuck in the ground. On the top is a piece of plastic where numbers denoting water depth has been printed.

Brackets attach a large-diameter PVC pipe to the metal pole.

Inside the larger PVC pipe is a smaller-diameter one onto which a toilet bowl float has been attached. On the upper end is a small red arrow.

The toilet bowl float rises and falls with the field water level, moving the inner pipe with it and the red arrow pointing out the relative water level on the top.

Although the design is simple, Mark says the gauge looks easier than it is to build.

“At the end of the day, if somebody wants to build it, they can,” he says. “Even though I’m not selling it to them, we’re still benefiting from water conservation.”

Farm tested

The Isbells use the gauges on their own farm and had received requests from acquaintances over the years to purchase them. A few years ago, Mark decided to start a side business making and selling the devices, which he has branded as the Rice Checker.

In 2016 and 2017, Ducks Unlimited deployed more than 100 each year to help growers participating in the rice Regional Conservation Partnership Program or RCPP.

The Rice Checker comes in two sizes—large and small. The larger gauge is taller than it used to be so Mark can place it in perimeter ditches of their zero-grade fields rather than in the fields themselves. That way he doesn’t have to worry about aquatic weeds, such as duck salad, growing up around them.

The smaller version was a new idea to see if it was feasible.

“It’s easier to build, which means I can sell it at a lower price,” Mark says. “It’s not as visible, so that’s a drawback. But if you need more than one in a field, you’re not spending as much per item so you can use more.”

The gauges last for several seasons if stored properly and not run over by errant equipment drivers.

For more information, contact Mark Isbell via Twitter at @ricechecker or @mjisbell.

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