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Rice farmers enlisted to sustain Pacific Flyway birds

Issue Date: January 19, 2022
By Edgar Sanchez
Snow geese take flight in a Sutter County rice field. Rice growers and conservationists are partnering in a program that floods rice fields to simulate wetlands to serve as bird habitat.
Photo/California Rice Commission
Sutter County rice grower Jeff Gallagher, part of a Central Valley effort to support bird populations, says it’s important “to coexist with our environment and be able to sustain our farming practices.”
Photo/Edgar Sanchez

Sixth-generation rice grower Jeff Gallagher is perpetually surrounded by birds on the Sutter County farm that has been in his family since 1872.

The soundtrack of his life is the din caused by the itinerant visitors—nasal honks of wild geese, hisses of sandhill cranes and other bird chatter at his 4,000-acre ranch in Rio Oso, a rice-farming region north of Sacramento.

"I'll be laying in bed and I can hear the swans, the geese and the ducks," Gallagher said. "It's pretty cool. It's definitely a unique environment."

Gallagher is doing his part to preserve it by enlisting in a new program to flood rice fields for wildlife. It is designed to protect bird habitat in California's Central Valley over the next 10 years.

He is one of numerous farmers engaged in a voluntary program to replace, at least temporarily, the valley's bird-sustaining wetlands, 90% of which have vanished over decades.

The initiative was hatched by the Central Valley Joint Venture, or CVJV. The Sacramento-based coalition of 19 public and private entities seeks to ensure the survival of avian species that arrive via the Pacific Flyway.

Stretching more than 4,000 miles, the air path is used annually by birds—including threatened species—that travel back and forth from South America and Mexico and as far north as Alaska and Canada.

Needing rest along the way, more than 100 million birds representing 400 species descend on the Central Valley each year, according to the CVJV. Some stay only a few days. Others stay longer, feasting on the valley's food resources.

This is where willing farmers such as Gallagher get involved. He uses groundwater pumps in November, after the growing season, to reflood his fields to help birds in the winter and beyond—before the water seeps back into the aquifer for future use.

He's been doing this for about five years, as part of various habitat enhancement programs sponsored by the California Rice Commission, the Nature Conservancy and other institutions. While the programs may overlap, all have the same goal: to help ensure that Pacific Flyway birds find comestibles during Central Valley layovers. Some programs provide financial help to farmers to flood fields at specific times.

Each fall sees a gradual spike in the number of bird visitors, when they start abandoning their northern habitats as temperatures drop.

"The peak is during the winter, when the birds choose the Central Valley to forage and stay away from those cold winters up north," James Cogswell, the Central Valley Joint Venture coordinator, said. "In other places in the West, the birds can't find the habitat or resources for their survival.

"The Central Valley is vital" for them, Cogswell said. "It would be catastrophic if the birds arrived here and didn't find enough water resources (and) enough food to give them the energy they need."

Birds are not the only beneficiaries of strategic farm flooding, Cogswell said.

Farmers also can benefit by allowing recreational opportunities such as birdwatching on their properties. Some farmers earn extra income by opening their land to limited hunting.

The CVJV reaches across boundaries of land ownership to protect and restore dwindling habitat for birds, Cogswell noted in a prepared statement.

"We work with everyone from farmers and duck hunters to state and federal agencies, to nonprofit conservation organizations, coordinating efforts to protect and maximize bird habitat," he said.

CVJV's initiative calls for postharvest flooding of agricultural lands. This practice makes critical food resources available for birds, including leftover rice grain, seeds and other plant matter, and insects and other invertebrates.

California's drought has made it challenging to flood farm fields, but farmers use a variety of water sources to do so for the birds' well-being.

CVJV's science-based project fits the schedules of many farmers, including California's estimated 2,000 rice growers, nearly all of whom are in Northern California.

In Rio Oso, for instance, Gallagher and his crew typically assemble in late March to begin preparing 3,500 acres for rice planting. His 500 other acres are for walnuts and other crops.

"It takes us about a month to get 3,500 acres (of rice) planted," Gallagher said. "We try to get the last field by the end of May. ... We start the harvest at the end of September, and we usually try to finish by the end of October, hopefully before the rain starts."

His latest harvest was interrupted by a late October atmospheric river that brought 6 inches of rain to Rio Oso in just one day.

"I probably had a day and a half worth of harvesting to do when the rain flooded my fields," Gallagher said. "We had to wait like two weeks for the fields to dry out so we could get the harvesting equipment out there."

The fields were still soggy when the high-tech harvesters went in. Plowing through mud, they could not properly separate the soaked rice kernels from plant straw, Gallagher revealed. "Probably half of the rice ended up in the harvester's tank," he said, "and the rest of it went into the mud."

Then groundwater pumps reflooded his fields in mid-November, as part of CVJV's program.

"It's shallow flooding, anywhere from 2 to 4 inches at the most," Gallagher explained. "That's really for breaking down the (rice) straw and decomposing it, so when you drain the fields in March, they're going to be clear. There won't be any straw, just bare soil, which will be ready for the planting of (the new) crop."

Gallagher said he believes "it's really important to be able to coexist with our environment and be able to sustain our farming practices at the same time."

Because "a lot of the wetlands and habitats have disappeared" over the years, he said, farmers can contribute to field conditions that support birds on the Pacific Flyway. The CVJV program, he said, "is a perfect fit for us rice farmers."

His participation is applauded by Luke Matthews, the California Rice Commission's Wildlife Programs manager.

"Jeff is an excellent conservation-minded rice farmer," Matthews said. "(He) has long-term thoughts about his farm and the impacts he can provide to the environment in his farming operations. He's been participating in our programs for a couple of years. He's been very good to work with."

Other CVJV partners include the California Department of Water Resources; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; Defenders of Wildlife; Ducks Unlimited; River Partners; the California Wildlife Conservation Board; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Audubon California.

More information about CVJV's new 10-year endeavor can be found at centralvalleyjointventure.org.

Gallagher said he is pleased to be a participant. He calls the program a benefit to rice growers "and the rice industry as a whole," and said he wants to protect bird populations for future generations.

"A lot of times, rice growers or farmers get kind of a bad rap as far as what we're doing environmentally," he said. "If there's anybody that cares about this land and the environment that we live in and make a living off of, it's us. And we try to do every day everything we can to sustain this environment and this industry that we are in."

(Edgar Sanchez is a reporter based in Sacramento. He may be contacted at edgar.chez@yahoo.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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