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Fish in the Fields: Gaining ground in 2022

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Fish in the Fields: Gaining ground in 2022
Photo courtesy of Chance Cutrano

RRI Team visiting our experiment site in England, Arkansas.


I’m writing to update you on Fish in the Fields (FIF) and the important progress we’ve been making in 2022. Our work to drive greater sustainability into two essential crops, rice and fish, continues to gain momentum and participation among key stakeholders in California and across the country.

You may recall that RRI’s Director of Programs, Chance Cutrano, and I attended the USARice trade association conference in December, 2021. That conference has become the springboard for a new FIF pilot program in Arkansas. Our goal is to build on our groundbreaking research in the Sacramento Valley and adapt it to the climate and growing conditions of Arkansas, the largest producer of rice and bait fish in the U.S. The people we connected with at the New Orleans conference have become the core of our Arkansas team, and we are thrilled to be working with the state’s leading rice growers, fish farmers and University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University researchers, as well as USDA NRCS staff, extension agents, and rice specialists. It was gratifying to see these experts in diverse fields join together for the first time to explore a new concept for Arkansas – the introduction of fish into fallow flooded rice fields to conserve natural resources, build sustainability and develop new agricultural business opportunities.

In preparation for the launch of a landscape-scale pilot project this fall, Chance and I traveled to Arkansas in June, along with our longtime FIF colleague, University of Montana aquatic ecologist Dr. Shawn Devlin. Our trip took us across the entire state, from Bentonville to Fayetteville to Little Rock, to Lonoke and England, and we were warmly welcomed and thoroughly educated everywhere we went.

We explored the 3,000+ acres of Isbell Farms, an environmentally committed rice grower who has generously offered to host our pilot. The Isbell family is already hosting the research of the University of Arkansas’s Dr. Ben Runkle—recognized for his trailblazing discoveries in carbon-water-energy cycling—as well as Dr. Michele Reba, a research hydrologist and lead scientist at the USDA-ARS Delta Water Management Research Unit (DWMRU), located on campus at Arkansas State University. Thanks to Dr. Runkle, Dr. Reba, and the Isbell family, FIF will be able to make use of their advanced experimental infrastructure – including methane- and CO2-measuring flux towers – which will contribute greatly to our research on FIF’s methane-reducing effects on winter-flooded rice paddies.

We also visited I.F. Anderson Farms, the largest bait fish producer in the world. Another distinguished family farm and a longtime supplier for our projects, I.F. Anderson is partnering with RRI to provide the native minnows for our pilot. Joining our meeting was Dr. Dayan Perera, Extension Specialist for the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries. With his generous offer to help our study, we will be able to collect samples of aquatic organisms and analyze how the introduction of fish to the rice water ecosystem affects carbon cycling and supports fish growth.

Finally, we had a productive session in Lonoke with a team at the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). We were able to share findings from our initial research and provide details regarding our fall pilot project in Arkansas. We learned about NRCS’s various funding opportunities and programmatic priorities in habitat conservation, soil science and water management. Even more exciting, we held initial discussions about how FIF could be incorporated in the USDA’s conservation practice standards for rice cultivation.

Overall, we were struck by Arkansas’s variety of rice growing practices and inspired by the spirit of experimentation, innovation, and collaboration that every stakeholder displayed. We couldn’t be more excited to continue our preparations for the year ahead.

We’re also pleased to let you know that we’ve continued to make significant progress in California, including a plan to expand FIF throughout the state’s primary rice growing area — the Sacramento Valley. One element of the plan is to employ mapping tools that will target the most likely FIF adopters based on a variety of landscape criteria and prior experience with incentive programs. This fall, in collaboration with local aquaculture partners and our colleagues at the University of California, Davis, we plan to conduct a growth study in winter-flooded rice fields with Sacramento blackfish, a minnow-like fish that is native to California’s floodplain ecosystems.

Our work continues to bring national and international interest. As we speak, Chance and I have just finished our first day of presentations at the 5th International Paddy Rice Research America Sub-Group Meeting of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, where scientists from rice growing nations are presenting on greenhouse gas research projects taking place on rice farms across the North and South America. Earlier this afternoon, our colleague Dr. Ben Runkle provided updates on his research projects in Arkansas and announced the launch of the Fish in the Fields pilot project in Arkansas this fall!

RRI is also in early discussions about attending the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, Canada with an envoy of California-based NGOs and officials from the Newsom administration to provide thought leadership on the the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and promote California’s Pathways to 30×30 initiatives, including RRI’s Fish in the Fields program.

We believe FIF has reached a turning point this year, as we expand our reach, intensify our research and extend our collaboration with leading figures, institutions and businesses. We have you, our foundation grantmakers, individual donors and loyal supporters, to thank for this success.

With appreciation,

Deborah Moskowitz, MPH
President, Resource Renewal Institute


Fish in the Fields: A little background.

FIF is a riceland management protocol that harnesses natural systems to: 1) foster resilience for two essential foods–rice and fish; 2) support the social and economic sustainability of rural communities; 3) provide wildlife habitat and build biodiversity. It is a modern adaptation of the age-old practice of fish-rice cultivation–recognized by the United Nations as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.

FIF is designed to work seamlessly with conventional rice growing practices. After the rice harvest, fish are introduced into fallow flooded rice fields, where they grow rapidly in these plankton-rich environments. In the spring, when the fields are drained in preparation for the next rice growing season, the fish are collected from catchment basins in the corners of the rice fields where water drains. Currently, harvested fish are being utilized by pet food companies and aquaculture feed manufacturers.

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