Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

by Erik Andrus and Ben Falk of VT
photos by Whole Systems Design


If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice is a successful staple and a backbone of enduring civilizations because of its unique properties as a water-tolerant crop. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

Wet rice has been adapted to a fairly wide range of climates, and is grown from Tierra del Fuego to the northern extremes of Japan — incredibly adaptive for a plant with tropical ancestry. The combination of durability, simplicity, and productivity that traditional rice systems offer is very compelling. However, up until a few years ago, farmers in our region for the most part never considered that rice systems modeled on enduring traditions of Asian farming could take root in our landscape. That has changed thanks to the work of committed pioneers including Takeshi and Linda Akaogi.

The work and outreach of the Akaogis led to the creation of both Erik Andrus’s bottomland mid-scale commercial project and Ben Falk’s hillside self-sufficiency-oriented project. Each reflects the values of two different growers, and borrows differently from equally valid and ancient traditions. Perhaps most significant, however, are the powerful tools each approach can lend to addressing regional and local self-reliance in an important yet often overlooked dietary requirement, as we enter a new era of economic relocalization and unpredictable climate changes.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Boundbrook Farm – Erik Andrus

While I didn’t grow up on a farm, I did spend a lot of my youth (sometimes quite grudgingly) in and around wetlands — my father being a bryologist. Bogs such as those we visited to collect spaghnum moss were among the most infertile, overlooked tracts of land you’d be likely to find in the North, although they nevertheless hummed with life adapted to these conditions. I suppose it was part of my education to understand that humanity and wetlands are permanently at odds, with settlement in North America relentlessly filling in and draining wetlands for building and farming.

As a young adult I became fixated on finding a way to own and farm a mid-size holding. Travel and farm work in England and France in the early 90’s brought out in me a quest to reinvent traditional farming and make it work on my native ground. The old agricultural landscapes of the Northeast with their hedgerows, stone walls and stoutly built timberframe barns bespeak an intention to stay put that resonated with impressions I’d developed of European working landscapes. Conventional dairy farming wasn’t enticing to me but dairy dominated the land around here to the near-exclusion of all else. Some still regard dairy and northeastern farming as essentially synonymous. As we enter the 21st Century we are now seeing the challenges of maintaining dairy viability in an age of corporate commoditization.

This year in Vermont the number of dairy farmers statewide dropped below 1000 for the first time, even though the most “unproductive” farms had supposedly al- ready been weeded out by brutal economics. Apparently not even the richest land in the region can support a viable commodity dairy economy. But the problem’s not the land, it’s our bankrupt global economy and the relentless get-big-or-get-out rotten advice farmers have been given by officialdom for decades. The land is still there. And with the storm clouds building over the global cheap-food economy, the general public has begun to take the idea of local staple production seriously. If fertility and feed prices increase in the future and climate shifts become more variable — a bet worth making — dairy as we know it is certainly in the last of its death-throes here in 2011.

About 10 years ago I lived in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan for a time. Miyagi farmers always grew at least some rice, often as much out of pride as anything else. They also managed systems wherein rice and dryland crops were grown side by side, managed in such a way that dryland crops shed excess water into canals that also kept the paddies filled. You don’t create such a system overnight and this landscape, for the most part, was created with human labor.

In 2006 my family and I moved onto our farm in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. The farm is situated on 110 flat acres on what used to be the bottom of Lake Champlain. It used to have a dairy operation before my arrival, and a true old-style diversified farm before that long ago. The soil is heavy clay and goes down as far as anyone’s been able to dig. Past farmers here have ditched the land to facilitate drainage for dryland cropping. Drainage is the sticking point — excess water is the major limiting factor here, and, in our early years, heavy and untimely rains hampered our efforts to grow crops such as wheat and barley. I wondered more than once about whether Miyagi rice would grow in these wet conditions.

It wasn’t until I attended the Akaogis’ rice workshop in Burlington in February 2010 that I realized that something like the Miyagi landscapes I had seen could actually be devised on my farm, with wet rice integrated into a diversified cropping and pasture system. In addition, creating a rice paddy system gives you a great opportunity to create wildlife habitat. Managed correctly (with water in the paddy as much of the year as possible) a rice paddy can perform many of the same functions as a natural wetland—erosion control, groundwater recharge, water purification, and habitat for an incredible quantity of birds, amphibians, and insects.

Most compelling to me was the chance to transform my least-productive agricultural land into, potentially, my most productive land. Rice yields in established paddies average over 4000 lbs. of milled rice to the acre. National organic brands average around $3 per pound in the supermarket. So, even if sold at par with national organics, rice represents a real opportunity even if a farmer only manages an acre or two. Though demanding to create, a well-engineered rice system will last and produce for hundreds or thousands of years.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

It’s very important to stress that our project was not created at the expense of natural wetlands, nor would we encourage this in any way. As long as this is the case, any new rice paddy will certainly represent a net gain in regional wetlands, and additional benefit from the ecological functions they perform.

After attending the rice workshop, I went back to the farm and created my first rice paddy, just a few hundred square feet, and made by hand in a swale in our barnyard. We obtained seed accessions from the USDA and, from 20 grams of germplasm, grew 22 lbs. of seed which we harvested in the fall. The plants were very productive!

We set about leveling and diking the land and digging a reservoir in early May 2011, even as rice seedlings from our previous year’s seed crop were sprouting in the hoop house. We’re still under construction, but in 2011 we planted a little under an acre of rice which is now, as I write this, just about ready for harvest, despite the wrath of Hurricane Irene. It’s still too early to say definitively what rice will ultimately mean for farmers like myself, but it is a delight to grow and to eat. It likes water, and we have more of that than we know what to do with on our farm.

Like other cereal crops, rice also carries with it many traditions which draw the wider community into rituals based on the life of the crop. From the start we’ve made a point of welcoming school and community groups onto the farm to get their feet wet, in the case of rice, quite literally. This kind of experience can help cement community identity and broaden the young peoples’ views of what farming can be. Again, it’s too early to say what rice will ultimately mean for local culture either, but looking at rice traditions in Asia throughout history, it is fair to say that the opportunity to celebrate and create beauty is there.

Like many aspects of farming, rice is scaleable. In Japan, rice paddies may be quite tiny (a few hundred square feet) or an acre or so in size. They may be farmed by a single family, or by several households in collaboration. Here on our shores too, each operation will naturally look quite different depending on the natural and social characteristics of its locale. There could be significant advantages with a variety of scales of rice growing both in terms of habitat enhancement (more edge effect) and in terms of opportunities for collaboration and cooperation among neighbors. If machinery or storage facilities are used, it often makes sense to share such investment. In my town, Ferrisburgh, some of the older residents remember a “threshing ring” in which a work party and heavy harvest equipment worked their way through participating households in the town. This kind of arrangement is an eminently sensible way to share labor and limited capital resources. In some ways it can even work better when there is a lively interdependency and mixture of scales than it might if each household was fully preoccupied with its own subsistence activities.

Another key advantage to rice systems is the possibility of managing them with little to no tillage, so requirements for capital equipment can be quite modest. After all, the majority of world rice is grown with quite basic technologies. That said, at our farm we use early 20th century equipment to harvest the grain with horses and thresh it from the straw, and we’ve imported a modern rice huller to render the crop fit to eat without the need for hundreds of hours of human labor. All very useful to the present-day farmer looking to earn a livelihood in the here and now. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that rice culture can exist perfectly well without such devices.

In Japan much of aesthetic and spiritual experience is based on the “blocking out” of extraneous information. As a visiting Westerner there it is easy to point out perceived flaws in this mentality, for instance how a beautiful landscape of mountains, rice paddies, and sea is marred by massive concrete high-speed train trestles and ugly high-tensile power lines all over the place. Japanese somehow manage not to notice these things. But in the rice paddy, pulling weeds, feeling the mud beneath my feet, I begin to understand. Bullfrogs, green frogs, and toads croak and trill around me. A sandpiper pips on the paddy dike. The wind rustles the silky leaves of the rice. Keeping their distance from me as I work, the flock of ducks forages for bugs, quacking and splashing softly. There is much outside the rice paddy that is beyond my experience and control. Here and now is labor, meaning, and beauty.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Whole Systems Research Farm – Ben Falk

In fall of 2011 we are now at the end of our third year of rice production, the first year of which was performed in 5-gallon buckets growing our seed crop for the following two years of paddy production. Unlike Erik’s bottomland rice system we are growing rice on what comprises most of Vermont and indeed most of New England — sloping land with very poor soils. Our challenge is no different than inhabitants of hill and mountain country have faced for millennia: to grow a climate durable, reliable staple crop from year to year, century to century on the same plot of land without diminishing that land’s ability to keep producing. For the most part this experiment has failed and societies have been forced to move on to new lands from generation to generation. Where it has succeeded it’s done so by employing several principles:

Slow and infiltrate surface water (usually achieved with swales, terraces and paddies)

Grow on contour, never shunt water downhill

Grow the most reliable vigorous genetics possible

Grow intensively and always use biological labor in stead of technical inputs

Return all nutrients back into the system

Of all the examples of proven successful approaches to hillside staple farming — from the potato culture of the high Andes to the chestnut-swine Dehesa system of the Iberian peninsula, to the terraced paddy rice systems of northern Asia — it is the rice-producing paddy approach that we have decided offers us the most immediate yields and application possibilities on Vermont’s hillsides. Of note, we have nutteries planted of chestnut, oak, walnut, hazelnut and other staples but the yields of those systems will always lag far behind those of an annual, grain-based crop. We see these tree crops as an essential backdrop and foundation of a highly productive more intensive annual cropping system.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Our rice production system is fairly simple and makes use of the above principles at many intersections. Consisting of two paddies, one directly above the other water is fed to the rice via gravity from a holding pond located about 10 vertical feet above the top paddy. This pond collects surface flow overland and harvested via gutters from the house and farm buildings. The pond then serves to warm the water which aids in rice growth and serves as a storage mechanism between rain events; this pond alone could water the two paddies for the entire summer if needed even if no rains came, assuming the winter had filled the pond completely. Given our very wet climate our pond in the past five years has been 100% full or nearly full almost every week of the season so it’s a good bet as a water source for the rice.

The water leaving this pond then flows to a small pool – the fertigation input pool – in which ducks are allowed access and other nutrients such as chicken house bedding and human urine is introduced. From this manure tea pool we have a source of warmed, nutrient-rich water located above the paddies that is then fed via 3?4” poly tubing as needed to the rice paddies below. There are two other pond-pool pairings that also feed into this system in-series further up the slope as well.

Taken as a whole this form of combining irrigation with fertilization (fertigation) combined with growing in a detention basin (paddy) is, for us, the crucially important aspects to rice production and why it can be maintained perpetually from year to year. By combining fertigation with detention-based growing we have a system that can capture easily most if not all of the nutrients flowing across my site and utilize them in a cropping system where the nutrients are totally captured.

Our rice paddies have only overflowed on rare occasions (tropical storms) so we don’t lose nutrients – they all go into the rice plants and paddy soil. On the rare events when the paddies do overflow the water is shunted into a series of back and forth swales the tops of which are cropped in elderberry, pear, apple, and many other fruits and nuts. As the water flows through this lower field of swales it is infiltrated and captured by soil/roots. During the growing season water never flows off the surface of our landscape except in 4-5” rain events or larger.

At this stage in our rice growing experiment it is clear that rice can be produced intensively and successfully in this very cold (zone 4) climate within no off-site inputs. It is a well suited fertility-cycling crop that can handle extremes of both drought and flood with ease given the nature of its culture. The challenges to its production we are facing include weed control — aquatic weeds are moving into the system and reducing yields, and we have also experienced bird damage. We plan to introduce our ducks earlier into the paddies next year to reduce the weed pressure; ducks find most aquatic plants palatable but not rice with its high silica content. We also will be netting or otherwise deterring birds much earlier in the season next year.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates