A well-deserved halo

Industry’s sustainable practices put it in a good environmental light.

By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice Federation

The concept of “sustainability” has exploded into the national consciousness over the past 15 years. It is a word that is ubiquitous but a concept that can prove difficult to define. There is no doubt, however, that sustainability is a concept that is here to stay and one that the rice industry can and should embrace wholeheartedly.

And embrace it we have.

While you have been using sustainable practices on your farms for generations, USA Rice created a Sustainability Task Force only in 2009. The purpose was, and remains, to be proactive on this issue and help guide and position the U.S. rice industry so you receive credit for the good work you already do.

The industry’s halo

The task force also would identify new opportunities to expand and enhance our industry’s sustainability practices and reputation – our environmental halo, if you will. A halo that proves vital for consumers, policymakers and lawmakers.

We immediately checked grower practices and found that America’s rice farmers were “hitting it out of the park” on sustainability already. We learned and demonstrated that over the last 20 years, America’s rice farmers have significantly increased yields while reducing land use by 35 percent, energy use by 38 percent and water use by 53 percent.

And it was all done naturally through hard work, ingenuity and innovation, and not with the help of genetically modified organisms. (We don’t believe there is anything wrong with GMOs; however, most consumers don’t agree so not using GMOs further enhances the halo.)

The newest sustainability development for the U.S. rice industry is part of the 2014 Farm Bill, and it’s one you may be familiar with and should take advantage of. It’s the creation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, designed to establish new public-private partnerships to further the conservation, restoration and sustainability of our natural resources.

The RCPP is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to find, encourage, and reward unique and valuable conservation projects.

Knowing full well that what’s good for rice is good for ducks, and vice versa, USA Rice partnered with Ducks Unlimited to create project proposals designed to enhance water conservation and wildlife habitat. In other words, to shine that halo a little more.

Our first project, “Sustaining the Future of Rice,” was the only national project seriously considered in the first wave of RCPP projects and was rice-specific. It was funded early this year to the tune of $10 million.

The project workhorse

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program will be the workhorse of our project, which kicked off the implementation phase. EQIP sign-ups in the South for our project recently closed, and applications were through the roof.

Enrollment will open to Texas and California growers later this winter, and Conservation Stewardship Partnership signups will take place later in 2016.

I’m happy to report that the newest piece of our sustainability halo — a proposal we’ve been ushering through the process with DU, the “Prairie Conservation Reservoir Project,” has cleared several initial hurdles.

We’ve partnered with the Lower Colorado River Authority to propose building a small reservoir in Eagle Lake, Texas, that would supply about 50,000 acres of local rice with irrigation water. We’ve requested another $10 million for the project. While we believe it is quite worthy, competition for these limited federal resources is fierce. We expect NRCS to announce funded projects sometime next month.

We will of course keep you updated on the progress of this and our other projects designed to enhance that environmental halo you can proudly wear.

To learn more, visit www.usarice.com.