The Yolo Basin is home to rice fields and shorebirds. The two benefit from each other. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

The Yolo Basin is home to rice fields and shorebirds. The two benefit from each other. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

Local News

Shorebirds fit into puzzling future of rice farming

By From page A1 | April 25, 2013

Yolo County’s rice farmland is home to more than one entity that needs to cope with changes in order to survive.

“We get up every morning, look for the sunshine, and hope it’s going to be a good day,” said Yolo County rice farmer Jack De Witte. His 1,500-acre stretch of land sprawls in the Yolo Bypass, and neighbors many unlikely allies — long-legged shorebirds wading in wetlands.

The two — the rice farmer and the (native and migratory) waterbirds — are reliant on one another in their less than ideal circumstances.

Rice is the second most valuable agricultural commodity in Yolo County, and is planted on approximately 46,000 acres locally, according to the county’s recent crop report. Still, competition from other countries in the global market has put a damper on the grander-scale prospects for rice growers this year.

Half of California’s rice crop is reliant on exports, but there has been a price decline for the exported medium- and short-grain rice due to Australia and Egypt stepping up their production. Pricing is one of the key factors De Witte can measure his season’s forecast by.

“A good season for us really comes down to a combination of good yields and good prices,” he said. “Seldom do they come together. Every once in a while — rarely it happens — we get a perfect storm of both.”

Also at play is uncertainty over the status of the 2008 Farm Bill, which usually offers farmers the safety net of direct payments, but has been extended to September and may be subject to cuts due to the sequestration.

And as always, there’s the unpredictability of weather. De Witte said it’s about this time that he starts crossing his fingers that conditions abide by the will of the rice farmer, and they stay crossed until all the rice is picked.

“The drier, the better,” he said. “When a rice farmer is busy getting his fields ready, in March through October, rain is a bad thing. … The harvest weather is important too. We don’t want to see a cool summer — that can be detrimental.”

Intimately tied to the fate of the local rice farmer is the waterbird population. The several species of migratory shorebirds that make a winter journey across California’s Central Valley have seen the gradual loss of 90 percent of natural wetlands, a decline that has consequently removed much of their usual rest stops.

The connection between these displaced fowls and rice farmers is that the lands of the latter group offers an option for a surrogate habitat. Rice farmland exists in the same proportion as remaining wetland areas, and when combined, provide the migratory shorebirds a space double the size of what would otherwise be possible.

The collaboration has allowed for local rice fields to support more than 90 percent of the two most abundant breeding waterbirds in the region, according to data from PRBO Conservation Science. The specifically designated shorebird conservation area has become the second largest in America for harboring these birds.

Participating rice farmers, such as De Witte, flood a portion of their fields between November and March, after harvest and prior to replanting. And there are incentives, beyond its intrinsic good nature, provided by local agencies like the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for them doing so.

The Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program, organized by the NRCS, has dispersed nearly $3 million to farmers who manage properties in ways that will benefit a variety of birds. Applications are being accepted through February for the program — with funding decisions based on a screening of said applications.

Phil Hogan, district conservationist at the NRCS, said those within the eligible program area — Yolo County and seven surrounding counties — that are interested in the adoption and implementation of conservation practices should contact their local NRCS service center.

De Witte said the program is an example of private enterprise — for-profit, in good years — and the public sector coming together for a common good: the prosperity of an enduring duo.

“I’m becoming an endangered species when I don’t have the resources to farm,” he said. “and we’re growing food and providing habitat that’s appropriate for hungry migratory waterfowl that may otherwise struggle in the winter. This works out well for both me and the shorebird.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

Brett Johnson

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