One of the most underappreciated benefits of U.S. rice production is its monetary value to waterfowl habitat. In fact, according to a recent report, if you attempted to replace existing rice lands with natural wetland habitat, the price tag would exceed $3.5 billion.
Talk about giving back to the community. That’s $500 million more than the average annual value of the U.S. rice crop. That’s also a good reason to ensure that current water shortages don’t curtail the efforts of U.S. producers.
“I’ve been in the rice business for more than three decades, and know firsthand that rice agriculture is a multifunctional agro – ecosystem,” said Ducks Unlimited president George Dunklin. “In addition to nutritious food for people, rice lands provide critical habitat for waterfowl and countless other migratory birds and wetland dependent species.”
“Rice production and farming are important components to ensuring that we meet the population goals set forth in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan ,” said DU CEO Dale Hall. “This study is an excellent tool we can utilize to show policymakers and waterfowl managers just how critical rice lands are to waterfowl populations.”
All three rice-growing regions of the United States – the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Gulf Coast and California’s Central Valley – overlap directly with the continent’s most important waterfowl wintering grounds.
Unfortunately for waterfowl and rice farmers, all three regions face challenges. Water supplies for rice production are under increasing pressure in all areas, and many producers may be forced to adopt practices that provide far fewer benefits for waterfowl. Lack of water availability is already hurting plantings in California, which is expected to plant 20 percent fewer acres to rice this year.
Because of the significance of rice lands for waterfowl habitat, DU and the USA Rice Federation formed the USA Rice – DU Stewardship Partnership  in 2013 to advocate for sound agriculture- and conservation-related policies and to promote the important ecosystem benefits of rice agriculture.
USDA’s Natural Conservation Resources Service also recognizes the contributions of U.S. rice producers to maintain water quality and provide much-needed waterfowl habitat, providing along with DU, technical and financial assistance to help producers accomplish their goals.
According to the study, authored by Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited scientists for the Rice Foundation, more than 40 percent of the food resources available to wintering dabbling ducks along the central Valley and Gulf Coast derive from flooded rice fields.
“The importance of the strong, viable rice industry goes well beyond the family farmers,” rice mills and merchants, to national conservation efforts,” said USA Rice Federation president and CEO Betsey Ward. “What’s good for rice is good for ducks.”