I’m farmer Erik Andrus, and along with my wife Erica I’m embarking on an exciting adventure of creating a commercial model for ecological rice agriculture in our adopted home of Ferrisburgh, Vermont. Rice gives us an opportunity to create a wetland environment that produces food in concert with nature. The experiment has compelling implications for the agrarian revival of the northeast and the future of sustainable agriculture here.
Our farm is 110 acres of Champlain Valley clay plain bottomland. Most of it is pasture, with some wild wetlands and a stand of fairly mature clayplain forest. The land has been continuously farmed since colonial times. A failed dairy farm preceded us, and left the land and buildings pretty beaten up. We bought the acreage and barns in 2006 and built a house. Over time we cleaned up the place and began pasturing grassfed beef and planted crops. We acquired some draft horses and began using them for farm work. One of my first interests was wheat, which led me to create Good Companion Bakery, as a way of showcasing grains grown here.
But my original vision of a little bakery that grew and milled its own flour proved difficult to attain. The clay land is prone to oversaturation, and heavy rains in excess of past seasonal norms damaged our wheat crops on several occasions. We have a little bit of land that sheds water adequately, but not much. I haven’t relinquished wheat, barley, oats and rye completely, but I learned I can’t depend on them as cornerstones as the farm’s economic existence.
I lived for about a year in Miyagi prefecture in northern Japan about 10 years ago, and saw rice being grown there in paddies. The climate was just slightly warmer than Vermont’s. Rice is a tropical crop with a very long (5 months plus) growing season. The Japanese over the course of their long history adapted both their varieties and their growing practices as they strove to grow rice in northern latitudes. The final step in the adaptation took place when Japanese agriculture moved to Hokkaido (the northern island) in the 1870s. So most of the varieties of rice and the field practices used to produce the crop in truly cold climates are in fact relatively recent.
While living in Japan I was still an aspiring farmer and not an actual one. Despite the climatic similarity I wasn’t really considering rice as a northeastern U.S. crop at the time, and didn’t pay as close attention as I could have to how people went about growing the crop. However thanks to the Japan America Society of Vermont we are no making up for this lost opportunity. The Japanese have forgotten more about growing rice on a small scale in cold climates than we northeasterners will likely ever learn.
Anyway, in the ensuing years, I wondered as I worked on my often-soggy farm whether Japanese rice would work here in Vermont. But Takeshi and Linda Akaogi of Westminster West, Vermont were the ones who made the leap first, or at least the ones who made what they’d learned public. It was their SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant-funded research that gave me the encouragement I needed to embark on adding a wet rice component to our farm operations here. Their rice paddy project is a model of a small field station. I visited their place for the first time last August and you will not likely find a more beautiful and better-tended rice project anywhere this side of the ocean.
However the extent of the land and water resources available here at my farm suggested a project larger in scope than the Akaogis’, with paddies large enough for horse-drawn equipment to maneuver in, and with a resulting grain crop big enough to justify the use of our really big thresher.
The advantages to getting into rice seemed pretty obvious. First of all, in their pre-paddy state, our wet, flat pastures seldom dried out enough even to be mowed or hayed. These were our least economically viable assets, not to mention being a nuisance to get through or around. Transforming this land into paddies would be pretty easy–after all, the flatness and the water are already there–and doing so could really substantially enhance the economic viability of these plots, making the weakest link on the farm potentially the strongest.
Second, the area where we are now planting rice had some amphibians present before, but now their numbers are massively increased. The dependable presence of water year-round in the project’s pond and canals plus the foraging area in the paddies themselves has greatly improved habitat.
Third, we had already made a lot of headway in acquiring equipment and skills to grow other small grains on a modest scale. Rice would allow us to build on this capital and knowledge.
But most of all I like the idea of working with the way this land wants and has always wanted to be. This plain was a wetland before the arrival of European settlers and is constantly trying to revert to this state. Creating a food-producing man-made wetland allows us to work with this, as well as to adapt to a shifting climate in which heavy rains are likely to become increasingly common.