- Traditionally thought of as a warm climate crop, some varieties of rice can also thrive in temperate regions, including the northeastern U.S.
- One rice farm in Vermont has successfully implemented the agroecology method of “aigamo,” where ducks are introduced to rice paddies to provide weed and pest control, plus free fertilizer, to the grains.
- Agroecology is a sustainable agricultural technique modeled upon natural ecosystems that also applies ancient growing traditions developed by Indigenous, traditional and local communities.
- The farm is now working to train others in its methods to boost the production of rice in the region and create a “community of practice,” so farmers can support and advise each other on rice growing, paddy construction, and more.
FERRISBURGH, Vermont — The home that farmer Erik Andrus built with his wife, Erica, sits on a slight rise above a stretch of fields that have been subjected to a variety of agricultural pursuits. Outside his kitchen window, the outline of rice paddies is now part of the evolving story of a farmer who is learning to make the best use of the land, crafting a livelihood while supporting the natural habitat functions of low-lying plains that benefit myriad wildlife.
“I didn’t grow up as a farmer. I worked on my aunt and uncle’s farm as a kid and kind of caught the bug and knew I always wanted to farm as a career, once I found a way to do it,” said Andrus. The opportunity came in 2005 when he and Erica bought what they would come to call Boundbrook Farm in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. With affinities for baking bread and brewing beer, they first attempted to grow wheat and barley, complemented by a small herd of cattle. Andrus soon found, though, that the heavy soils were slow to drain after rains.
“We had beef cattle at the time, and they’d be up to their knees in the water, looking like water buffalo, and I thought, ‘oh, it looks like rice paddies,’” he said, and was reminded of visiting rice farms while living in Japan.
Ideas for a new plan for Boundbrook Farm were bolstered by a 2009 report by fellow Vermont farmers Tokesha and Linda Akaogi on paddy rice growing in the Northeast U.S. It included a how-to guide for growing domesticated rice varieties on wet farmland not suited to other types of agriculture.
“There was a mini-wave of interest around the region starting around that time,” Andrus said. “A lot of the growers, myself included, found it was a little hard to scale up because the Akaogi method sort of told you how to grow the crop at a garden scale, but in order to grow at a scale where you could support yourself, those methods are no longer sufficient. I decided that what I was going to try to do was find a way to develop the commercial methodology.”
Andrus started planting that same year, initially growing out seed on 200 square feet (almost 19 square meters).
“We just dug our first paddies with shovels,” he said. “We only grew 20 pounds [9 kilograms] that year, but it was just enough to get going. And I thought it was successful enough that I wanted to keep expanding.”
Boundbrook Farm lies within the northern extreme for successful rice growing, where Andrus now grows old Hokkaido varieties from Japan that are cold tolerant. Principles of agroecology, loosely defined by Andrus as a food-producing system that has many of the features of natural ecosystems that support multiple species, were also on his mind.
So, following another Japanese tradition, they implemented the aigamo method, where ducks are introduced to the rice paddies to perform weed control duties while their waste fertilizes the water, eliminating the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
Once the newly planted rice seedlings take root, they release the ducks, which forage among the rice plants, eating weeds such as duck potato, or suppressing the germination and growth of other weeds such as barnyard grass and spikerush that would hinder the rice, thanks to their churning of soil around the young grain’s shoots. During the early to mid-season period, the birds leave the rice alone, because they find its leaves’ high silica content unpalatable. The ducks are pulled from the paddies when the grain starts to come into “ears” and begin to droop down within their reach.
Duck safety is the primary mid-season job. An electric poultry fence is strung tightly around all the fields to keep predators out.
“We check them morning and night — if there’s a predator problem, then sometimes we have to shut them in at nightfall and then go out at 6 a.m. and let them out again,” Andrus told Mongabay. “You learn to read the signs in them. If attacked during the night, the behavior of the flock is different in the morning than it would be if they had a quiet night.”
Boundbrook Farm has tried several varieties of domesticated ducks over the years, but finally settled on ‘mulards’ (French for “mule-like”), a hybrid, non-fertile white duck bred in Canada. The smaller size and more active nature of female mulards is beneficial in rice farming, and they can be sold for meat after being withdrawn from the paddies. Meat sales supplement the profit of the rice harvest, accounting for about 10% of the total farm earnings.
Attractive to wetland wildlife
While paddy predators include water-loving otter and mink, both of which may kill more ducks than they can actually eat, Andrus said hawks are not practical to worry about — he knows he will lose some ducks each season to aerial attacks.
“But there’s [predators] that you can easily track down like snapping turtles, once you learn how. A snapping turtle will go right through a blazing hot electric fence — they’re dinosaurs. But you can find out where it did that, and they don’t move very fast,” he said with a laugh. “So, sooner or later, you can catch it.”
The paddy environment is also attractive to other wetland-dependent wildlife, including an array of dragonflies, several species of herons, frogs and salamanders. According to Andrus, many farmers don’t realize you can get habitat as well as a number of other ecosystem services from rice production. Every March, his family might see a thousand wild ducks in those fields, as the waterfowl migrate north — something they never saw when it was a hayfield.
“Migrating birds prefer to land in a great big wetland … something where the water is shallow enough to feed but deep enough to be safe [from predators]. They don’t want to land in [nearby] Lake Champlain — they are safe there, but they can’t rest and they can’t forage,” said Andrus. “So, there’s something really qualitatively special about the kind of land that a rice paddy is. In the natural state of the landscape, there’s not a lot of extensive water that is uniformly shallow, so a rice farm creates that feature. It’s like a magnet to birds, because it has everything that they need.”
Advancing the farm
As an early adopter in New England, Andrus and his farm apprentices have had to do a lot of research to learn the best growing conditions, field engineering techniques, water management, grain processing, and marketing, all without advice from neighboring farmers.
So, in 2015, Andrus returned to Japan to visit more farms and attend a duck-rice farming conference hosted by a top expert in the technique, Takao Furuno, where he met fellow practitioners who are still helping him to this day.
“In Japan, a team of people help with rice paddy infrastructure, some people are experts just in [that]. No one succeeds in farming as an individual there — it’s a collective.” If more people start rice paddy farming in New England and New York, they can build a similar network with sources for supporting infrastructure, he said, “plus sharing ideas and knowledge.”
Few rice products can claim to be local to New England, so Andrus insists there is no need to be competitive. His experience has shown there are plenty of customers, so he’d like to see more farmers enter this arena. Andrus is now working with Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York to encourage more farmers to try rice farming in underutilized fields that are too wet to support other types of agriculture.
The idea is to share information and reduce the anxiety of rice growing. “So many aspects of rice growing are unique to rice, it even makes seasoned farmers apprehensive,” he said.
Growing a community of practice
Boundbrook’s paddies are currently idle after a drought in 2020 severely impacted its success. In 2021 and 2022, it leased fields adjacent to Little Otter Creek from another farmer to create rice paddies with irrigation support from the creek, without depleting the source or adding the expense of town-supplied water. Andrus plans to expand production again in 2024 by again using some of the rice paddies developed on his property.
According to Martha Caswell, co-director of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative at the University of Vermont, Boundbrook Farm’s shift to use nearby land with irrigation potential reflects a core principle of agroecology: matching the activity to the place, instead of the other way around.
“There was capital [that allowed Boundbrook] to be able to access additional land, but there was also an awareness or sensitivity to what the land itself can hold and tolerate,” said Caswell.
“There are a lot of different ways to practice agroecology, depending on your bioregion and the materials that you have on hand. It can look quite different from farm to farm,” said Mollie Wills of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit focused on strengthening the social, ecological and economic health of agrarian communities. “That certainly is true of Vermont, we have many little microclimates, and part of the definition of agroecology is inherently working with the landscape that you have, and the resources that are available to you.”
With the additional land, and repeatedly adjusting equipment and growing methods, Andrus has been able to start making a living from growing rice.
“Since that initial return to Japan in 2015, the combination of mentorship and the access to machinery, like the same tools and machines and methods that the Japanese themselves use, that’s enabled me to kind of crack the code,” he explained. He hopes 2023 is the year when Boundbrook Farm is going to be able to hire a second farmer.
“It took a long time. We went through multiple methods of harvesting, post-harvest processing, raising rice nurseries, transplanting those nurseries into the fields, and preparing the fields themselves,” Andrus said.
Food studies professor Molly Anderson from Middlebury College in nearby Montpelier has brought her agroecology classes to Boundbrook Farm to learn from their “community of practice,” including the network of rice farmers in Japan.
“Erik is the only commercial rice farmer in Vermont right now. He grows the crops that meet the abilities of his land instead of growing what the people around him are growing, and he uses very humane practices,” said Anderson. “The students adore seeing the ducks at work.”
When Andrus first started, he suspected they would be able to grow rice in quantity in New England, but didn’t realize its quality would also be better than what is typically found in a North American supermarket.
“The taste of fresh rice, not over-dried, is just a different experience — that’s what has earned us a strong customer base,” he said. “It’s the tastiest rice I’ve ever had.”
This article is the latest in Mongabay’s ongoing series on agroecology, which the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change says is a top climate solution: view all the features here and learn more about Boundbrook Farm at its website.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Top sustainable agriculture author Tom Philpott discusses the multiple challenges facing our industrialized food systems and how agroecology provides many solutions, listen here:
See related coverage: