Taking Fish in the Fields Farther Afield:
The RRI team attends the USA Rice Conference in New Orleans
In early December, Resource Renewal Institute (RRI) president Deborah Moskowitz and Director of Programs Chance Cutrano spent a busy and productive three days at the USA Rice Federation (USARice) 2021 Outlook Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.
As exhibitors and participants, they were there both to educate the nation’s rice growers about the benefits of Fish in the Fields (FIF) for farmers and the environment, and to learn about adapting the FIF fish-rice cultivation model to growing regions beyond its California origins.
With close to 500 million metric tons of rice produced in the U.S. annually and 80% of it grown outside of California, it was essential for RRI to engage with the larger rice growing community. In early 2020, Deborah and Chance initiated talks with rice farmers in Arkansas–the nation’s largest producer of both rice and bait fish–to develop a FIF pilot project. Covid interrupted project planning for nearly a year, so the USA Rice conference provided a welcome opportunity for everyone to reconnect.
At their exhibit booth, the RRI team shared plans to explore the program’s viability and value in the Southeast rice growing regions. RRI gauged rice grower interest in a pilot program to research the FIF model. They explained how it can improve the use of resources in rice production systems, support migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, improve carbon cycling, and provide farmers with a second crop.
While not rice growers themselves, Deborah and Chance discovered that their years developing and refining the FIF program served them well in discussions with industry leaders, scientists, farmers and trades people in attendance. They engaged in valuable exchanges with growers from the Southeast, gained new understanding and insights into regional cultivation practices and challenges, and explored how FIF could adapt to different growing conditions. Some of their takeaways:
- Fish-rice cultivation has a long history in Louisiana where crawfish are raised in flooded rice fields.
- USA Rice and many of the growers in attendance expressed their interest in incentive programs to increase the sustainability practices on their farms.
- Growers are innovating to develop products beyond milled rice. Some farmers in attendance had expanded their businesses to capture market share in the rapidly growing sake industry, and for the first time in the United States, farmers are bringing rice whiskey and rice vodka to market.
- Conventional rice farmers are facing financial stress due to the rising costs of farm inputs–such as urea, ammonia, and other nitrogen fertilizers.
- There are organic rice farms in the Southeast! 4Sisters, an organic long grain rice farm located in Louisiana, shows promise for our first FIF pilot project on an organic rice farm. We will follow up to discuss the possibility of incorporating the FIF practice to bring a winter crop and some new, sustainable products to their farm.
- Affluent millennials are the largest consumers of rice in the U.S.
Deborah and Chance were invited to the 600-person conference by Charley Mathews, the Immediate Past Chair of USA Rice, which describes itself as the “global advocate for all segments of the U.S. rice industry.” A Sacramento Valley rice grower and long-time supporter of FIF, Mathews was one of the first farmers to offer up his fallow, flooded winter fields for RRI’s landscape-scale FIF pilot program.
Based on some promising discussions, the RRI team looks forward to a follow-up trip to the Southeast in March, 2022. They have scheduled in-depth talks with Josh Hankins, USA Rice’s Director and Grower Relations & Rice Stewardship Partnership and Mark Isbell, a fourth-generation rice farmer at Isbell Farms in Arkansas. The Isbell family are pioneers in sustainable rice growing and have expressed interest in collaborating on a pilot project in the fall of 2022. Furthermore, the RRI team has plans to engage with another half dozen growers in Arkansas and Louisiana.