'Rice-enomics' In A Drought

Dec 19, 2014 Brad Hooker Senior Writer, Department of Plant Sciences University of California, Davis
Deep ties with the area - and UC Davis - are helping one farmer take on agricultural challenges.
'Rice-enomics' In A Drought

Colusa County rice farmer George Tibbitts farms his grandfather's ranch. (Brad Hooker | UC Davis)

When herbicides swept from farms into rivers, George Tibbitts adopted better water-management strategies. With field burning phased out, the Colusa County farmer, like many rice growers, flooded his fields to dissolve the straw remaining after harvest. When water was scarce, he fallowed. But now that a possible fourth year of drought threatens his crucial water allocations, Tibbitts is at a loss.

His deep ties to UC Davis have led him to harvest some of the highest yields in the state. They will also help Tibbitts take on what will likely be his most challenging year.

Early curiosity about agriculture

Tibbitts gained an early curiosity about agriculture from weekends with his grandparents at the Lodi Ranch, the farm started in 1930 by a legend in California rice, George Lodi. At UC Davis, he studied plant science and as a graduate student he worked in agronomy with Jim Hill, a Cooperative Extension specialist and today an associate dean.

Together they researched water management practices, including the impacts of water depth and how to balance the quality of water released from rice fields — crucial work to an industry that would eventually reduce herbicide contaminants by nearly 100 percent.

“We were doing research on other people’s farms and I saw how important it was that growers cooperate with researchers,” says Tibbitts.

Applied agricultural economics

After college, he married Nancy Rupp, a UC Davis career counselor, and he applied his master’s courses in agricultural economics to a job at the California Farm Bureau. He saved and planned, and finally, at 35, he and his siblings took out a loan to buy back the old family farm.

“I did what I could, begging and borrowing and stealing those first few years to get my foot in the door,” says Tibbitts. “The experience I got working with Jim doing research really helped me understand the science that goes behind the breeding and the agronomics of planting and growing rice.”

Rotating crops, mining the clay

The mixed clay soil at the Lodi Ranch allows for ponding up water for rice, while in other years rotating to crops like safflower and sunflowers, which mine the clay for deeper moisture and nutrients. Tomato growers come in before Tibbitts returns a field to rice. It cuts down on weeds and diseases.

With modern practices and decades of scientific innovation, particularly at the UC-supported Rice Experiment Station, Tibbitts now sees twice the yield his grandfather once harvested.

“It’s the same amount of water, same amount of land,” he says, “just new varieties and better equipment, better science and technology behind it — all constantly evolving trying to shift that curve.”

New era of rice growing

When the Tibbitts family bought the farm, Hill was introducing a new era to rice growing. The Cooperative Extension specialist was helping farmers with new ways of fighting weeds and diseases, from flooding fields in winter to suffocate the weeds, to rotating herbicides before aquatic weeds can adapt.

More than 20 years later, the practices are a mainstay in the region and, long before the current drought, they have led farmers to think more carefully about conserving water.

“A lot of people think rice is a heavy water user,” says Jim Hill. “But it’s not much more than other crops and actually less so than some.”

Field water used over and over again

Hill points out that much of the water that floods the fields is used over and over as it cascades through the rice-growing areas — one farmer’s tailwater is the next person’s irrigation water.

Little water seeps into the high-clay soils where rice is grown. The flooded fields, meanwhile, simulate the wetlands that once dominated the Central and Sacramento valleys. The habitat supports millions of waterfowl and shorebirds annually.

Putting back into the soil

“The way we farm is sustainable,” says Tibbitts, “but it requires being mindful of putting back into the soil what we take out when we harvest a crop.” 

He is reminded of this often by Bruce Linquist, the UC Davis CE specialist who replaced Jim Hill and has studied fertility on Tibbitts’ fields for several years.

Today breaking down rice straw through flooding is becoming a luxury. With climatologists predicting a fourth year of drought, every drop of Tibbitts’ allocation grows more sacred.

“Our greatest fear right now is that we have another winter like we had last winter,” he says. “I hope we don't have to find out the hard way what happens when things get as bad as they can get.”

From the genes of rice

One weapon Tibbitts may wield years from now could be crafted from the genes of rice. UC Davis scientists have already worked for several years to develop rice varieties tolerant of flooding. By flipping that genetic switch, they could potentially equip rice to handle more drought stress.

“But in this particular area you could probably do more with water management than you can with breeding,” stresses David Mackill, a rice geneticist and adjunct professor in the Department of Plant Sciences. “In the longer term we should be thinking about breeding crops for better sustainability traits.”

Mackill and Bruce Linquist have seen potential in using alternate wetting and drying, which could have other benefits, like fewer traces of arsenic in the grains and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But this could come at the cost of reduced yields. Yet advanced technologies like this won’t be ready for the current drought.

Fallow fields, fewer field hands

Another drought year for Tibbitts means he may leave more fields fallow, hire fewer farmhands and switch to other crops. Rice growers with the heavy clay soil further north, meanwhile, won’t have that option.

With all the changes, one goal hasn’t been lost: sustainability, as in maintaining a farm Tibbitts hopes the next generation of his family will one day inherit.

“In my lifetime,” he says, “I hope I’m still farming when we reach our 100-year anniversary.”

UC Davis is growing California

At UC Davis, we and our partners are nourishing our state with food, economic activity and better health, playing a key part in the state’s role as the top national producer for more than 50 years. UC Davis is participating in UC’s Global Food Initiative launched by UC President Janet Napolitano, harnessing the collective power of UC to help feed the world and steer it on the path to sustainability.
Brad Hooker is a senior writer in the Department of Plant Sciences.

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