Grains of Change
In California's Central Valley, where a quarter of the food varieties we eat are farmed, a new generation of growers is teaming up with conservationists to make sure that rice and long-billed curlews will always mix.
Interest in wildlife extends well beyond the younger generation of rice growers. The day before we met with Traynham, we spent some time with Jack DeWit. Lanky and soft-spoken, the 67-year-old DeWit, who has been farming for about 30 years, seems like an elder statesman of sorts for the area's roughly 2,500 family-run rice growers. He talks about his experiment with growing organic rice in some of his fields. At one time, his operation was among 73 rice farms that had gone at least partly organic, a practice that requires planting cover crops for several years. "Our crop rotation there is wild rice, regular rice, and shorebirds," DeWit said, a slight smile disappearing as quickly as it appeared. A few minutes earlier he had led us to an overlook and pointed out a shallow stretch of water packed with black-necked stilts, avocets, dowitchers, dunlins, pintails and mallards. In a light rain, he remarked on how many species were using just this one small area. "Each year, when I see the first mallards with a brood, I call my wife to come look," he said. "I'm excited by that." DeWit also knows all too well that farmers want to farm, and find it difficult to leave their fields sitting untouched for the waterbirds' benefit. "I have one son who likes ducks as much as I do," he says, "and another who wants to fire up his tractors after harvest as soon as possible."
Some or all of the practices discussed at the February 2009 workshop went into effect on six farms during the 2009-2010 season. As part of this pilot project, Hartman organizes bird surveys every two weeks. "The jury is still out," he tells me as we drive back to Sacramento after our visit with Traynham. "We've only done a few surveys to this point." But both Hartman and the rice growers are optimistic about the long-term results.
The rice growers' alliance with conservation organizations holds a barely concealed benefit for them as well: It deflects the criticism they receive for "wasting" water. In the arid West, "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over," Hartman says, quoting a well-worn aphorism usually attributed to Mark Twain. Many Californians have had their water use restricted by drought, and when they fly into Sacramento they can look down and see the gleam of water siphoned from the Mount Shasta reservoir and filling tens of thousands of acres of rice fields.
The rice growers can now point out that the water in their fields is essential to a wide variety of wildlife. Up to 230 animal species have been recorded, including 187 bird species, 28 of which are listed at the state or federal level as species that range from "special concern" to "endangered." Most rice fields are designed to make optimum use of the moisture they receive. Water released at the high end of the field spreads out through paddies. Then, on many farms, it is collected by a canal so it can be pumped back uphill and recycled, reducing the amount of water needed to replace what is lost to evaporation. A pound of rice requires between 250 and 650 gallons of water, although numerous crops use comparable amounts (a pound of soybeans uses about 240). Still, Hartman says, "There's simply not enough water to go around." How California's water is split among farmers and 35 million residents is complex and often contentious.
When the long-bills come south each year, they generally spend the first months in the alfalfa fields at the bottom end of the Central Valley. In past years Page has seen large numbers of curlews sitting under irrigation sprinklers. Now, he says, some farmers are putting in drip lines, which run underground and deliver water directly to the plant roots. This is a perfectly sound water conservation strategy, but, ironically, one with potentially unfortunate consequences for waterbirds. What happens if the flooded areas the curlews depend on disappear? Will they simply move elsewhere?
Page and others have placed satellite transmitters on long-billed curlews the past few years and tracked their movements. "I thought that maybe the birds have to go all over the valley to find food, or that some would move back and forth from the valley to the coast, but none of that happened. We found a lot of site fidelity to wintering areas. Curlews would tend to return to their own little portion of the valley rather than settling in different places every year. One bird came back to the area around Dixon four years in a row."
Near Dixon we run smack into another problem: blocks of new homes that appear to have been dropped, like a movie set, into the middle of the fields. Small farming towns are becoming bedroom communities for people who want to work in the city but live in the country. "All these houses went up in the last six to seven years," says Chris Conard, a natural resource specialist and curlew census volunteer. "And developers own much of this ag land, just waiting to develop it."
On my last day in California I make one final attempt to find some curlews, with shorebird expert Nils Warnock (then at the University of California-Davis and now Alaska Audubon's executive director) as my guide. Once again the day begins with dark skies and drizzle. We drive along old farm roads near Davis for an hour, and the rain picks up. Twenty minutes later it stops suddenly and a break in the clouds allows some sunlight to peek through. There they are: a hundred or more long-billed curlews picking at the grasses in a pasture, stretching their wings and preening.