Conservationists & Rice Farmers Agree: Project is for the Birds

Photo by California Rice Commission

Seventy rice farmers in Glenn and Colusa County have signed contracts to participate in a $2.68 million pilot project with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to modify their rice fields and production practices to benefit shorebirds and waterfowl.

In the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI), rice farmers will engage in a number of practices strategically targeted to benefit the birds’ migratory and breeding needs. Under MBHI, for example, rice farmers will flood their fields earlier or maintain the water longer in the season—and at the depth specifically needed at critical points in the season.

“In general shorebirds and many waterfowl require shallowly flooded habitat, 2-6 inches deep,” says Alan Forkey, Assistant State Conservationist for NRCS. “Rice fields are often deeper than that. Also, rice farmers often pull the water off their land in January but under MBHI they will keep it on longer and withdraw the water more gradually,” Forkey says.

Additionally, rice farmers will be shaping the levees between the fields to better accommodate the birds’ nesting and resting needs. Sloped levees will be flattened providing a better nesting surface and shoulders that make it easier for chicks to navigate from nests to water. Some farmers will also provide artificial nesting structures.

In many ways this is the culmination of years of scientific, agronomic and outreach work between conservationists and rice farmers. The California Rice Commission, Audubon California, PRBO Conservation Science and other groups partnered with NRCS for over a decade. “Together we have tested practices that seem to really make a difference to waterbirds that are also acceptable to rice farmers,” said Paul Buttner of the California Rice Commission.

Some practices are clear win-wins for farmers and waterbirds. For example, the longer flooding of the fields also degrades the post-harvest rice stubble. Additionally, some farmers will manage small portions of their fields as wetland habitat which will allow intake water to warm a bit—a practice that both the birds and the tender rice plants appreciate.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership will be measuring bird response to the new activities undertaken by the rice farmers.

In August, money became available for MBHI but the opportunity came with a very short timeframe. All outreach, planning and contracting had to occur in two short weeks. Conservationists from all the partner organizations helped with a workshop that swelled with interested farmers. “I believe that providing the “why” and the context for these practices really increased farmer enthusiasm for adopting the practices,” said Rodd Kelsey of Audubon California.

Rice farmers will begin their bird-friendly practices this fall and continue through 2014.

Since its inception in 1935, NRCS has worked in partnership with private landowners and a variety of local, state and federal conservation partners to deliver conservation based on specific, local needs.

-from press release
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