Growing Rice in VermontJune 29, 2011
All around the world in places with thin soil and mountains or hills you can find terraces. It makes a lot of sense. Controls erosion, encourages soil building, much easier to work on and they also are very pleasing to the eye. Some of the oldest of these terraces can be found in south east Asia where the same terraces have been farmed for thousands of years. The majority of them farmed as rice paddies. I read a book a few years ago that changed my perspective of my future farming practices. It was called Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. The book details the rise and fall of the most prominent civilizations and how they were effective by erosion and the salinization of soils. Today we are loosing topsoil around the world at very high rates. Per ton its one of America’s top exports. We wont have any place to go to find new soil so I want my farming practices to grow soil along with our produce.
Meadow likes to make fun of me but often times when the clouds are low and there are stray wisps that sink into the valley our Vermont hills remind me of some tropical rain forest in south east Asia (mostly because I don’t wear my glasses so distant trees are a block of green mostly). Besides the fact that we have snow and lots of it and that the sun is not quite so hot here we have many things in common. Here in vermont we have lots of hills and mountains and most of the time the soil on them is quite thin. So why is it that so much of their hillsides have been converted to terraces while ours have not. And why are we trying to grow wheat and corn on these slopes when a well managed rice paddy can yield double. I figured it was for two reasons one rice can’t grow here and we don’t make terraces because our ancestors have lived with out terracing moving on to a new place when the soil goes sour. But then I learned of some folks who were growing rice and had a successful crop in southeastern vermont. They had experimented with a hundred or so varieties and found a few that were from the very north of Japan that worked.
This got me excited. I attended a session at the NOFA winter conference of growing rice and started to learn more about paddy building and rice in general. I contacted the USDA seed conservation group and ordered my research seed which is basically the only way you can get the seed because importing rice is a tough thing to do because of pest outbreaks in the past. When get seed from the USDA they give you a small amount 5 grams or so and its your job to grow out more if you need it. This meant for our first year growing rice it would be on a pretty small scale. Which is good because then if I messed up the consequences would not be as bad. But then the seed came a bit to late to have it ripen in time. So I ended up having to wait a year to start our seed grow out.
Finally when this spring rolled around I was ready to get our rice ball going. To speed germination you soak the rice for 10 days or so then planted in transplant trays. I planted 3 seeds per cell to make sure I got a few plants per cell. The germination rate was pretty good and I ended up with 140 plants in 80 cells. After I had seeded them I wished that I had done it in two trays. It was so stressful when I decided it was time to move them out into the cold frame and then out to harden off. If I messed up and they got to cold I was out of luck I used up all the seed I had. I would have to wait for yet another spring to come.
We had two horses living up at the house this winter and there paddock is pretty flat. Every year there stall gets cleaned out and the feeding area outside gets scrapped up to compost. This year after I scraped it I made a first draft of a paddy and a warming pond using the tractors front end loader. I made a 13×13 area with raised walls for the paddy. The warming pond I made deeper and skinnier. The paddock when it was built was scraped down to subsoil and is very clayey so of course right after I made the paddy it filled with water making the leveling process a bit more challenging. The toads and salamanders found it only after a few days. Our pond must be at capacity, the water ripples when you wake along the shore because of all the tadpoles and salamanders swimming to the deeps for safety. This led to the second problem of the leveling process, Tadpoles. I couldn’t drain the paddy completely or I would kill the hundreds of tadpoles that had taken up residency in my little paddy. I tried to avoid crushing them and used a board and a level to get pretty close to level. You want the paddy to be close to level so the water covers the rice the same no matter where it is.
I finally got the courage to set the rice plants out into the paddy. I added some organic potting soil to the spots where the rice was going to be planted to make sure it had a nice boost of nutrients and so it would root better. The rice was planted on a 1×1 foot grid pattern with 2 or three plants on each spot. Closer plantings can work but I wanted to make sure they had enough space. Next year with a bigger paddy I will do more experimenting with spacing and yield.
The rice is in the growing stage now. The plants are growing fast when the sun is out. We have had a lot of cloudy rainy days so they have lots of time to plan their strategy of getting taller once the sun shines. The next stage will be the heading stage where we hope to have more warm sunny days. Cold and cloudy weather during the heading stage means trouble for seed production.
We have been keeping water in the rice paddy for three reasons. The first is that we have a really good seal on the paddy so very little water seeps out. The second is the amount of rain we have keeps filling the dang thing up. The last reason is the toads just keep on mating. I can hear them calling out for some loving right now. It will be the third set of little guys produced since the paddy was built. Ben Faulk who will be giving a talk on rice growing at this years SolarFest has paddies that leak so his are not constantly flood and he has had three years of success.
The rice will be ready to harvest by mid to late September. We will have plenty to plant and a bit to eat. We still have to work out the best way to process them into brown rice for selling at market. In Japan they make lots of small scale equipment for rice growers but they are quite expensive to try to get over here. If enough folks start growing rice we could go in together to buy one and share it around as needed.
Our plan is to have at least a quarter acre of rice next year. That should yield around 1250 pounds of rice in a good year. We would then go up to around 2 acres in the following years. With two acres of rice we could be producing between 7000 and 10000 pounds of rice a year depending on the year. I’m still trying to figure out what size our final rice area will be. It mostly comes down to time management. We still will have our forest garden orchard/ market garden and animals to manage. I’m sure I’ve missed things that I want to talk about. Once the rice starts heading I’ll post another update with more pictures and thoughts. Check out the gallery for more pictures.
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