This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Aug. 23, 2010 edition.
To keep migratory birds away from oily areas along the Gulf Coast, the U.S. Dept of Agriculture is paying rice growers and landowners in Louisiana and other states to flood farms and pastures for habitat this fall. Birds need sustenance when they reach the southern U.S. on journeys that can exceed a thousand miles, often taking them to Central or Latin America.
Before traveling, birds accumulate fat reserves, but they rest and refuel during their excursions. Think of the time you arrived famished at a relative's home for the holidays after the airline didn't serve food on the flight you took. And you were just sitting on the plane, reading and dozing.
"More than 50 million, migratory birds will travel south this fall towards marshes and coastlines impacted by the oil spill," said Tim Landreneau, state-program specialist with USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service in Alexandria, La. "NRCS is working with farmers and ranchers from Missouri to the Gulf Coast to manage portions of their land to provide additional food and habitat for them."
Steven Linscombe, Louisiana State University agronomy professor and director of LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station in Crowley, said "the migratory bird initiative is intended to divert birds north and west of the oiIed marshes and islands near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Rice and crawfish growers used to seeing lots of birds are generally in favor of the program. In the fall, we normally host birds from Canada and the northern U.S. because our rice fields provide groceries--like waste grain, seedlings and seed from weed grasses." Some of these state- and nation-hopping birds are endangered species.
Catfish producers and others willing to flood fields and pastures have also signed up for the program, while sugarcane growers don't practice flooding and aren't participating, Landreneau said. To provide bird habitat, landowners are creating mudflats and shallow areas containing less than a foot of water.
Landreneau said $40 million has been earmarked from three USDA, NRCS sources--the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)--to pay landowners in eight, "flyway states" to develop or enhance migratory bird habitat. Sign-up for the program began on June 28 and ended on August 1. Louisiana got the most funding, receiving $14 million this year, followed by Mississippi and Arkansas with over $6 million each. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas are also participating.
"Farmers and landowners have signed contracts through either EQIP, WHIP or WRP to cover expenses" to implement practices needed to develop habitat, Landreneau said. Typical expenses include manipulating crop stubble and other vegetation and performing the flooding. Payments to landowners will be based on 75% of the average, per-acre cost of implementing each practice across the state, and landowners will have to absorb 25% of the average cost.
Landreneau said "this is a financial assistance program, not a subsidy--meaning NRCS shares the expense of installing the conservation practice with the landowner." Under the program, "payments to landowners this year will range from $10 to $90 an acre, depending on how much their practices cost. First reports indicate that program participation in Louisiana this year will be highest in Acadia, Evangeline, Jefferson Davis, St. Landry and Vermilion Parishes." For now, the program is intended to last three years, and many Louisiana participants have signed up for several years.
As Louisiana landowners begin flooding fields for habitat, shorebirds and early-season, water fowl have been spotted there, with many more expected, Landreneau said.
Linscombe said "several other crops besides rice are involved in the migratory bird program since rice in Louisiana is rotated with soybeans and corn and in aquaculture with crawfish. The program should increase production of crawfish by allowing more harvested rice fields to be re-flooded this fall." If crawfish are plentiful, they will be gathered.
"Few Louisianans will complain about more crawfish next spring," Linscombe said. Given the scarcity of oysters and shrimp since the spill, crawfish from southwest Louisiana could be in bigger demand than ever.
When asked about possible growth in weeds and blackbird populations from the flooding program, Landreneau of NRCS said participating farmers might see more aquatic weeds, but he added that weed treatment is a standard, farming practice. And, he said, flooding is not expected to increase the flocks of blackbirds that typically prey on rice.
Rice thrives in Louisiana's climate in fields that are shallow ponds surrounded and punctuated by short, man-made levies, allowing precise water control. Water is provided by nearby rivers, streams and deep wells. Fields are flooded for most of the growing season and then drained just before harvest to provide firm soil that can support harvest equipment. The main crop is gathered in August and September, and is often followed by a ratoon crop that does not need planting and is harvested in late October and November.
Michael Salassi, agricultural economics professor at LSU, pointed to the benefits of Louisiana rice producers partnering with USDA to expand bird habitat. "Migratory birds are a valuable resource to Louisiana," he said. "Rice production fields, in particular, are well suited to provide overwintering habitat for a wide variety of migratory birds." And the bird initiative could give some growers extra income this winter, he said.
City dwellers, who hear birds on sunny mornings but don't know much about them, might wonder what makes birds such valuable resources. Birds help the environment by transplanting seeds and pollinating plants. And as part of the food chain, they control insects and rodents and are themselves meals for other animals.
Rice growers are avid bird watchers, Linscombe said, "this week, for example, I was in a field and saw flocks of stilts, roseate spoonbills, ibises and egrets, and stopped and enjoyed the spectacle for awhile."
As for the state's rice production, the sector has made a bit of a comeback. Louisiana rice acreage declined from a 1999 peak as urbanization, rising production costs and coastal erosion took their toll. Acreage began to recover in recent years, however, and yields per acre were a record last year.
Earlier this decade, Louisiana rice output suffered from Hurricanes Rita and Ike, said Andrew Wong, co-owner of Jazzmen Rice, LLC in New Orleans. Meanwhile, rice demand has been helped by growing Asian and Latin populations in the U.S. and health awareness, he said. His company contracts Louisiana-grown, aromatic rice, developed by LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station, from farmers, and sells it to stores and restaurants. Business is so brisk that jobs created directly and indirectly by Jazzmen could expand from one hundred this year to over 2,000 in five years, Wong predicted.
Researchers have long been interested in rice fields as habitat, Linscombe said. "In a program that started well before the spill, we've had young scientists here this summer from Mississippi State University, doing sampling to determine the nutrient and caloric content of our rice fields and soil as food for wildlife."
The initial imprint of the USDA's migratory bird initiative will be known by year-end, Linscombe said. "This fall and winter we'll find out whether the program does in fact divert birds from oil-tainted areas. And we'll learn whether it was truly needed since only a portion of the coast is oiled."
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