A California drip-irrigation manufacturer, California rice growers and Israeli university researchers are teaming up on a project in Yolo County to try to grow one of the state’s most thirsty crops using significantly less water.
This first farming project using Israel’s research and innovation in water technology to reduce rice-crop water use will begin this spring at Conaway Ranch in Woodland.
The project — a partnership of Lundberg Family Farms, Netafim USA and researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — was announced at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the U.S. for a rice crop,” said Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, president, principal and chief executive officer of Conaway Preservation Group, which owns the 17,000-acre Conaway Ranch between Davis and Woodland.
“This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in California if widely adopted.”
Traditional methods of rice growing can use about 5.1 feet of water per growing season, or about 24 gallons per serving, according to USDA estimates, making it the most water-intensive of California’s major crops. California’s $5 billion rice industry exports to more than 100 countries, growing about 500,000 to 550,000 acres in a normal year, using an estimated 2 million to 3 million acre-feet of water.
Rice is Yolo County’s fourth most valuable commodity, after tomatoes, almonds and walnuts, with 39,325 acres bringing in $69.2 million in 2014, according to the county’s latest crop report.
But rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley have been hit hard by the ongoing drought. The 2015 rice crop was 30 percent smaller than normal because of water shortages, experts say.
As drought continues to be a big concern for growers in Yolo County and statewide, this project seeks to better understand if rice can be grown effectively with sub-surface drip irrigation. The method consists of a series of pipes that deliver water directly to the root zone of the plant and has the potential to reduce rice-crop water usage, as well as save on application of fertilizers and improve weed control.
“As a partner in this cutting-edge project, we are hopeful that this concept could provide farmers with a revolutionary form of rice production not only in California, but wherever rice is grown worldwide,” said Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for Lundberg Family Farms, one of the world’s largest producers of organic rice and whole grain products.
“We hope that the project’s success can be duplicated to improve organic weed management while producing environmental and conservation benefits,” he added.
However, habitat for wildlife is among the environmental benefits of rice-growing, as migrating birds are drawn to the flooded fields.
Over the past 18 months, Eilon Adar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has visited several times to meet with California legislators and water resource officials, discussing how Israel, an arid country, has created a surplus of water through innovation, technology and effective water management policies.
For this project, Conaway Ranch executives are using the expertise of Adar, one of Israel’s leading water experts and former director of the Zuckerberg Institute at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.
“After evaluating a number of options to enhance water use efficiency, Conaway Ranch decided to move forward with a subsurface drip irrigation pilot project on a 50- to 100-acre area for rice,” Adar said. “We’ve outlined the testing procedures necessary to maximize success, based on experience growing a variety of crops in arid climates using sub-surface drip irrigation.”
In meetings and at public forums, Adar has highlighted ways Israel is closing the gap between water supply and demand, including improving irrigation efficiency, expanding wastewater reclamation and reuse, as well as engineering drought-tolerant crops.
Netafim USA agronomists have conducted a few similar rice-crop trials in other parts of the world. Installation of the system and the first plantings at Conaway Ranch are scheduled for completion this spring. Based on results from previous projects, this trial is expected to produce an improvement in yield, while reducing water use.
“By researching drip irrigation technology for rice cultivation, the Conaway Ranch owners are demonstrating their commitment to smart water conservation and long-term sustainability,” says Woodland Mayor Tom Stallard. “We are so pleased to see this progressive practice being studied so close to our community.”
(Source – http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/ag-environment/rice-growing-experiment-eyed-as-long-term-drought-solution/)