Lowland Integrated Rice Production in Maine

Summer 2016
Rice and azolla growing at Wild Folks Farm in Benton. Ben Rooney photo
Rooney harvests rice with a scythe. Corallina Breuer photo

By Ben Rooney

Wild Folks Farm is entering its fourth season of lowland integrated rice production in Benton, Maine. Lowland refers to paddies. We have nine, with a gravity-fed water system. The paddies comprise about an acre; the berms, pond and outflow creeks add another 2 to 3 acres. Integrated refers to the polycultures within the paddies, including domesticated ducks, azolla, pigs (in fallow or harvested paddies) and wild species of frogs, duckweed and waterfowl. (For cautions on rotating pigs with various crops, please see “Raising Organic Hogs by the Tractor Method” in the spring 2006 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.)

We began in 2013 with a short-grain brown rice from Hokkaido, Japan, which has a climate similar to that of central Maine. Now we grow long, medium, short, sweet, risotto, red and brown varieties from three continents. We sell limited amounts of three varieties and plan to sell seven next fall. The farm, in conjunction with the Maine Rice Project, which includes individuals interested in rice production in Maine and me, aims to demonstrate and share homesteading and commercial-scale methods and systems and to spread rice education, production and consumption throughout the state.

Note that we do not condone disturbing wetlands to create paddies. Rather, we encourage turning some of Maine’s roughly 200,000 acres of marginal, wet pastureland into wetlands.

Why Paddies?

In Maine, moving water significantly limits growing grass or crops. We believe our paddy rice can yield upward of 5,000 pounds per acre.

Azolla, a water fern like duckweed, can double in size every five to seven days in summer – so a few kiddie pools of this stuff can cover our paddies by midsummer, adding to biomass production. This frost-sensitive crop keeps weeds out, provides shade for the thousands of frogs and tadpoles, feeds our ducks and associates with cyanobacteria that, according to the International Rice Research Institute (“Rice Research Strategies for the Future,” https://books.irri.org/9711040611_content.pdf), can, under some conditions, fix more than twice as much nitrogen per acre as alfalfa.

In good paddy conditions, 1 pound of rice seed will plant 1,000 square feet and can yield 100 pounds or more. We started with 5 grams of seed from the USDA in a 8- x 8-foot hand-dug paddy and harvested 4 pounds. In 2015 we harvested 400 pounds from 8,000 square feet – less than expected because of seed that flowered too early in the season and was zapped by some unseasonably cold July night weather, and bobolinks feeding on the grain in the milky stage. We are working on biological systems to limit damage from bobolinks and plan to only use the early flowering variety for direct sowing (more on that later). With the numerous unknowns of paddy agriculture (hydrology, weed and pest pressure, processing equipment, drying and storage), I instruct anyone who wants to grow rice in paddies to go slowly.

Ducks add biodiversity to the agroecosystem, help maintain aerobic conditions, and stimulate growth of more rice roots and shoots. Ben Rooney photo
Rice drying in a greenhouse. Ben Rooney photo
Working in the rice paddy. Corallina Breuer photo
The harvested crop, ready for market. Ben Rooney photo
A Maine rice crop. Ben Rooney photo

Managing Water in Paddies

Paddy rice can be grown in many ways, depending on the ratio of water storage to paddy area, hydrology, climate and growing systems. Before transplanting at the end of May, we keep our paddies flooded, and a few days before transplanting, we drain the paddies. This reduces weed pressure. For the month of June, we pulse water in and out of the paddies every few days, so only amphibious weeds survive. With saturated, loose clay soils, pulling remaining weeds is easy.

Water retains heat, which moderates a microclimate where rice plants thrive. Water also protects plants from unexpected frost. Our paddy rice matures two to three weeks faster than our dryland rice.

Around June 15 we add azolla, which needs water to spread. On June 25 we add 2-week-old ducks. Little ducks are better for little rice. They add fertility, keep the paddy soil aerobic and are extremely tasty! Use a little feed to train the ducks to song every day so that you can get them out of the paddies by mid-August, when the rice begins to ripen, unless you want to eat rice-laden ducks (also tasty). We rotate our ducks among paddies, in tandem with flooding. (Note that organic growers must not have ducks in paddies within 90 days of rice harvest, to follow the 90-day waiting period required by organic regulations between manure application and harvest of a crop that does not contact the soil.)

After the ducks exit, we let the paddies dry, which aids ripening.

The combination of pulsing and moving water with ducks seems to avoid the anaerobic conditions associated with methane production in other types of rice cultivation.

In September we cut with a sickle or scythe. While conventionally planted rice usually has about five stalks, our bushy plants have up to 50 stalks, thanks to water pulsing early in the season, wide spacing (12 inches in each direction) and churning duck feet. Takao Furuno writes in his book “The Power of Duck” that his experiments have shown that rice grown with ducks forms thicker roots and more stalks than rice grown without ducks.

While some varieties dry almost fully in the paddies, we lay most of the grain, threshed, on cloth in our high tunnels, rake it after a few sunny October days and rotate the next batch in roughly a week. We have never relied on moisture meters, and so far all our rice has germinated at about 90 percent, even after a few seasons of supposedly not great grain storage. Perhaps healthy plants store better.

Site Design

Our system is fairly precise, and elaborate.

We hand-dug our first paddy down to the subsoil and used an excavator for the rest of our nine paddies, each roughly 5,000 square feet and flat within a few inches. Levelness is key for large-scale transplanting, water control, weed pressure and ducks. Each paddy is surrounded by a 12- to 20-foot-wide berm, where we plan to plant perennials.

Our land is slightly sloped, with only a 15-foot difference in height from pond to creek, a horizontal span of 450 feet, demonstrating the small slope that can be used to create paddies. A 1/8-acre pond uphill gravity feeds to the paddies, from which water flows into a creek. Four inflows and outflows – PVC pipes, one with a valve and others with unglued elbows that can be rotated to control flow – help us experiment.

We transplant directly into the clay subsoil, which was amended with a thin layer of compost, soft rock phosphates, aragonite, granite meal, lime and humic acid. Tests have not found arsenic in our soil and water – an important point, since the rice plant is an arsenic accumulator.

Growing lowland rice doesn’t have to be so elaborate and precise. The crop grows well in wet soils next to other crops, planted in rows. Also, rice can be fully submerged in water for a few days with only minor setbacks. In small paddies, let a wet June pulse the water. If you don’t have azolla or ducks, then in July, when plants are established and dry weather sets in, don’t worry about flooding. Also don’t put your paddy at your lowest spot, since outflow is as important as inflow. When plants are small and wet weather occurs in June, letting gravity do the work is much easier than using buckets.

For the 2016 season we received a USDA Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to test the viability of directly sowing rice in New England. Currently all commercial rice produced in cold climates is transplanted. However in recent decades substantial improvements have occurred in the tropics in methods, small-scale equipment and yields for directly sowing rice. Since 2013, our first year, I have been saving seed from the fastest maturing plants from our earliest variety, Hayayuki, with the dream of directly sowing a crop in future years. Last season I haphazardly broadcast 1/16 acre with this Hayayuki rice, and it finished by the end September and did fairly well. This season we will do a cost-benefit analysis comparing transplanted rice to a few direct sowing methods. Direct sowing can lower the labor cost of producing seedlings and transplanting as well as the opportunity costs of valuable high tunnel space for seedlings, but yields and weed pressure can be issues. We are going to trial equipment from India and create instructional videos for growing rice in Maine.

Wild Folk Farm plans to have work parties, with music, dance and food, to transplant and sow our rice, and in September to harvest and process it. We are excited to continue working with the Maine Grain Alliance to build, rent and acquire more small-scale processing equipment for homesteaders and farmers. Please be in touch (WildFolkFarm.com) if you wish to process rice or other hulled grains with our equipment or if you want to be on our list to receive information about rice, workdays or u-pick processing.

Creating large-scale paddies quickly does take fossil fuels, but we believe that using these fossil fuels to create systems that no longer rely on them is important. With higher yields, better adaptability for uncertain climates and rainfall (rice does fine without water), more control for weed pressure, and a self-fertilizing wild and domesticated polyculture, we are jazzed about paddies. We hope to bring new crops and polycultures into paddy agriculture.

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