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Arkansas Rice Farmers Test Water-Saving Technique

Generations of Arkansas rice growers who farmed the flood plains near the Mississippi River had little reason to pay attention to water supplies or their impact on a changing climate. Dan Hooks is different.

Defying the common practice of constantly flooding fields—which creates methane and makes rice the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases among U.S. crops—Hooks experimented for three years with a low-water technique on 500 acres of rice. Turns out, when he allows the crop to dry out before irrigating again, he’s cut water usage in half and saved money without hurting yield.

“If farmers weren’t willing to change, we’d still be using mules,” Hooks said by telephone from Slovak, Arkansas, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of the Mississippi, the biggest U.S. river and a water source for millions of people. “I’m happy to be a guinea pig.”

While fossil fuels like oil and coal get most of the blame for climate change and pollution, agriculture also contributes to the problem. American farmers—the world’s biggest grain producers—are responsible for 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, and rice has three times as much per acre as corn and five times that of wheat, according to a University of California-Davis study in 2012.

The technique used by Hooks, called Alternate Wetting Drying, reduces methane emissions, as well as water and fertilizer use. The concept was developed three decades ago in Africa and popularized in Asia during the 1990s. It’s now being employed in the U.S. on 35,000 acres, from southeast Missouri to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, by farmers calling themselves Nature’s Stewards. The group thinks changing the way rice is cultivated could mean a more carbon-friendly future for the Mississippi Delta, the biggest growing region.

They may be right. But absent larger incentives—a prolonged water shortage, for example, or taxes and fees tied to emissions—the new methods may struggle to win a wider following among tradition-bound farmers.

A national market for carbon credits would provide exactly such an incentive, and during the early days of President Barack Obama’s administration, there were attempts to create one. House lawmakers proposed a system, called cap-and-trade, designed to encourage power plants and manufacturers to lower fossil-fuel emissions through the use of carbon credits. At the time, groups including the National Farmers Union tried to develop carbon credits farmers could sell on exchanges.

Cap-and-trade never made it out of Congress, and broad support since then has all but vanished. President Donald Trump last month signed an executive order attempting to roll back the government’s previous efforts to fight climate change.

However, the changing climate is affecting agriculture and could put a premium on reduced water usage. The earth has posted record-high temperatures in much of the past decade. California, the other center of U.S. rice production, just emerged from a multiyear drought. Five years ago, the Midwest had its worst drought since the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Nature’s Stewards is trying to provide evidence that Alternate Wetting Drying can make economic sense for rice farmers, according to Dennis Carman, an adviser who is chief engineer and director of the White River Irrigation District in Hazen, Arkansas. The effort is being aided by grants from Little Rock-based Winrock International, Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others.

Normally, a rice farmer might flood his field under four inches (10 centimeters) of water at the beginning of the season and keep it at that level. Under Alternate Wetting Drying, farmers let the water drop to around two inches before applying more. The variation in soil moisture helps keep pests down, stretches the life of any fertilizer and lets rainwater do some of the work of keeping fields moist, rather than rely on irrigation, Carman said.

That can save up to $50 an acre on production costs that can reach $1,000 an acre—important savings in a low-margin industry that’s seeing harder times, he said.

But while the practice has been around for decades and is common in Asia, few American growers use Alternate Wetting Drying because water has usually been more abundant. And while savings are real, so are the hours and resources required for creating and documenting a new production system.

Tough economic times make farmers very conscious of risk and wary of any changes that could create yield and revenue losses with little promise of return, said Chip Bowling, vice chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, an umbrella of U.S. farm groups.

American farmers will see profit drop for a fourth straight year in 2017, the longest slump since the 1970s, according to the USDA. Revenue from rice last year totaled $2.37 billion, down 30 percent from a record in 2008, government data show.

“Anytime you see a change in production practices, it has to be enough of a change in dollars and cents to justify the change,” said Bowling, a former head of the National Corn Growers Association who raises that crop in Maryland. While farmers take pride in being good land stewards, many won’t change how they grow crops unless it helps them make or save money, Bowling said. That’s not happening, partly because carbon markets aren’t working for them, he said.

California has a fledgling market for carbon trading, and Arkansas farmers could potentially take part in it to monetize the carbon reduction from the Alternate Wetting Drying method. But right now, the cost of paperwork, time and record keeping is greater than the financial benefit of $5 a ton, Carman said. If the price reaches $20 a ton, farmers would begin to consider a switch, he said.

“These guys aren’t going to do this for nothing,” Carman said. “The production system is workable, but the economics are not there.” Jim Whitaker, who farms 5,700 acres of rice outside McGahee, Arkansas, about 100 miles southeast of Little Rock, says he’s taking the long-term view.

“This is the way of the future,” he said. “The way we’re touching sustainability addresses the social, the economic and the environmental. If we’re using less, we generate carbon credits, we lower our methane gas emissions. We’re saving real dollars, putting dollars into farm-family pockets, and we’re making society better.”


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