Duck Release and Safekeeping

By Elise Schumacher; UVM Next Generation Food Systems Internship Program


Life at Boundbrook has maintained a steady, busy pace since transplanting began in June!

I am proud to say that we have successfully finished transplanting as many rice plants as possible into the paddy. This was a task that proved daunting at times. Broken parts, thick mud, and shallow water levels all offered their own challenges. The paddy is full of healthy plants now, which is a beautiful sight to savor when we take lunch on the back porch!

All the ducklings arrived safely, too. After spending a few weeks indoors to let them grow (and to allow us to finish prepping the fence) we released them into the paddy! It has easily been my favorite moment of the season. Each individual duckling went through their own process of fear and curiosity before diving off the ramp. After contact with the water, a shared sense of delight swelled through the flock as they explored their new aquatic home.

 

We are just finishing up the fencing this week. With 5.3 acres, this job has been much more time consuming than previous seasons. Duck safety on the paddy is a constant source of concern. Predators typically decrease the flock size by about half.

  To address this, a new project we have been tackling this year is a duck house! With Erik's carpentry skills, three us of were able to erect a duck housing structure (or hotel, known as The Billton) with multiple levels in only a number of days. The structure allows the ducks safe haven from predators that typically grab a late night snack.

 

 

Transplanting

This is a big year in the development of our rice project.  For the first time this year, we are planting all 11 plots, comprising 5.3 acres in total, in rice.

Always there is some limiting factor, somewhere in the process.  Initially, it was lack of seed.  At other times, our own ignorance of the best methods or the lack of some particular tool was holding us back.  However we have a fair amount of suitable rice land and ample surface waters to grow into.  Eventually I think the operation might level out at around 10 acres, which feels like a good size to aim for.

When my friend Judd Markowski and I first engineered our rice paddies in 2012, we aimed high and created a total of around 5.3 acres of fields, with the intent to work up to that scale. But only this year will all of those original fields be planted.  Some fields still have serious issues, ragged division dikes, high areas within the fields which will certainly produce weeds, and low slucky deep spots that still seem to be able to mire equipment if one isn't extremely vigilant.  Eventually all this will get ironed out.  Already growing rice feels quite a bit more routine, and I can look back on some of our awkward efforts in the earlier years and wonder how we ever managed.

One barometer of how well the season is going is how my body holds up through transplanting season.  Over the course of our development as a rice farm, I find that while there is still plenty of hard work, I find I'm more able to stand and walk at the end of the day than in our earlier years.

Transplanting rice, while not strictly necessary from a biological standpoint, is a common practice throughout the rice-growing world.  The reason it is done is that rice grows slowly while weeds that compete with it grow quickly.  By growing seedlings intensively, in a crowded environment, and then planting them out to the (recently tilled) field in a wider spacing, the rice farmer can get a jump on the weed competition.  Usually rice seedlings are planted out at 5" - 12" long.

When we began in 2011, we raised our seedlings in cell trays in a greenhouse and planted them into the paddy by hand.  We continued this practice into 2012, enlisting some high school students and hiring some field workers to plant a larger plot.

In 2012 we got our first transplanter, which was superseded this year by two Iseki transplanters from Japan.  These new ones are four wheel drive and are able to plant and move in widely varied paddy conditions and can also climb out of the paddy with little trouble, and can be driven on dry land.  They also both sport headlights and horns.  No cupholders, though.

Mechanical transplanters are loaded with mats of seedlings, which are grown in special trays in about 3/4" of rich soil.  In the rear of the machine, the large bed holding the mats of seedlings shuttles back and forth like a typewriter carriage, and mechanical fingers pluck plants from the mat one stroke at a time, and embed them in the mud.  When it's working right, you leave a perfect trail of parallel rows of beautiful plants.

I am amazed by the uniformity of the plantings I've seen in Japan.  To get that kind of result you need really great seedlings and really great field preparations.  And another amazing thing is how clean the machine operators manage to stay over the course of the day.  By contrast, even though our transplanting methodology has come a long way, we're pretty much always covered in mud!

2017 Rice Farm Workers Bella and Elise are already muddy and it's only 9am.

2017 Rice Farm Workers Bella and Elise are already muddy and it's only 9am.

Spring in Hokkaido

It's been quite a while since my last post here.  Since then we have gotten another harvest under our belt, and made some serious moves toward setting up better post-harvest storage and milling infrastructure at the farmstead.  I used my customary wintertime respite to work on ordering some more rice farming equipment from Japan, and in preparing for another short trip there to visit with some rice growing colleagues.  I'm writing this post from my friend Takehiro Ono's house, in the little former Hokkaido coal mining town of Minami Bibai.

 

The landscape here is in some ways very reminiscent of the Champlain valley, with a broad agricultural plain and mountain ridges in the distance, much as the Greens and the Adirondacks form the two mountain walls running parallel to my own home.  But in the foreground, you can see real differences, because here there is no gently sloping land to be found.  Every arable acre has been divided into leveled parcels, usually surrounded with berms and serviced by irrigation and drainage systems.

Takehiro told me that the soil here is high in peat, and that in the earlier days of Hokkaido agriculture, water retention was a problem for rice agriculture, and considerable effort was made to amend the soil to help fields retain water better.

All told, Hokkaido is a very pleasant place, and at this point in the year is at almost exactly the same point in their spring as we Vermonters are in ours.  The snow here is rapidly melting, and work is just ramping up to begin spring tillage work and get the large hoophouses that are used for rice nurseries covered.  Snow loads here usually dictate that hoophouses have to be stripped of plastic over the winter, but from what I have heard, snow has been so light this year, maybe they could have been left on...  There is some concern that the lack of thick snow pack in the mountains may mean less water later in the season.

I came directly from Burlington, Vermont to Sapporo, and Takehiro generously retrieved me at the airport and drove me to his charming house in Bibai.  Takehiro worked for Bibai City in the tourism division and is about to head overseas himself to join his wife in Thailand for a while.  I was lucky enough to be able to come visit with him here during the interval after the completion of his contract with the city but before his departure.

Yesterday we met with Yoshikazu Orisaka, who is a veteran duck rice agriculture practitioner in Urausu, a village near Bibai.  My father and I met him previously in 2015, during our last visit.  Orisaka was eager to help me with technical questions about the equipment I am in the process of importing.  It's interesting how huge the spread in cost is between what new equipment costs here and what it sells for on the used local market.

Swans stopping over in Bibai, on their migration to Siberia.

Swans stopping over in Bibai, on their migration to Siberia.

 

We all ran out of energy for this conversation before I ran out of questions, as it is a lot of work to convey this information across the language divide.  At this point I can bash out some simple sentences in Japanese with my limited rice-farming vocabulary, which is very gratifying to me when it works, and maybe this demonstrates seriousness and commitment to my hosts, but the actual usefulness of my conversation skills is still sadly limited.

Afterwards, Takehiro and I left and had a nice lunch at an Udon (noodle) joint and hit some industrial clothing supply places to look for rice paddy boots and other rice farming gear small enough to bring back home in my luggage.  I also picked up some rice bowls and the 100 yen shop.

As a last stop for the day we drove to the town of Iwamizawa, where I knew there was a used farm equipment supply place.  We had actually stopped in two years ago and scoped out the machinery, but everybody was at lunch or something to that effect.  However, we poked around and I quickly realized that used farm equipment here is much more affordable than I had ever thought possible.

The original inspiration for visiting Japan was to connect with fellow practitioners of integrated duck and rice agriculture, but discovering that this equipment is affordable and accessible (though it is a LOT of work and expense to get it back to New England) was a very important secondary accomplishment.  Anyway, this time there was somebody at the yard to talk to, and he seemed quite eager and willing to help source the kind of equipment that we small scale rice farmers are after, and it could be an important breakthrough to make a personal connection to a supplier who understands farm equipment well and is willing to work with the various requirements of American importers.  It is quite possible that we will be able to give them some business, both for my own farm and for other American startup rice operations that I am involved in and am trying to support in various ways.

The siginificant thing about this kind of equipment is that it is designed for an environment where labor constraints roughly correspond to the situation in the United States.  In other words, this equipment makes it possible for a relatively small workforce to undertake what I would call "community-scale" commercial operations (say, from 2 to 20 acres) with a fairly modest capital outlay that can be easily paid down over time.  While it is possible to produce rice with basic hand tools only, doing it this way will set some significant limits on the net productivity of any rice farm, and doing everything by hand means pretty hard work that is unevenly distributed throughout the season.  There are surges in labor needs at transplanting (in June) and at harvest (in late September or early October) that are, in most cases, likely to very hard for small-scale American farmers to be able to meet.

As an example, transplanting an acre of rice takes ten people one day if they are fast and skilled.  For most American transplanters without conditioning or training, it is better to allow twenty people.  This is a serious commitment of time and/or money that would probably rule out rice as a commercial crop for all but the most committed, and would likely drive up the cost of the finished product well beyond the range of ordinary staple food items in the U.S. local and organic market.  I can't speak for everyone who has an interest in growing rice, but for me, one of the main goals of my work with rice is to provide food to neighbors at a reasonable cost.  So, if labor requirements are very significant, this presents a problem.

Mr. Ashihara, a techinician for JA Hokkaido / Hokkuren in Iwamizawa shows the mechanism of a "pot-type" rice transplanter to me and Takehiro Ono.

Mr. Ashihara, a techinician for JA Hokkaido / Hokkuren in Iwamizawa shows the mechanism of a "pot-type" rice transplanter to me and Takehiro Ono.

Enter the transplanter.  On the used market, small transplanters cost under $1000 US, and one transplanter can transplant an acre per day with one or two people running it.  The labor savings easily justify the purchase and maintenance of the equipment--and even if we allow a second $1000 to get the transplanter into the country the overall cost is still just $2000, and if each paid person in the field manually transplanting costs $100 per day, time 20 is $2000 in labor for just one transplanting season.  This little machine could pay for itself the first year.

When I first got into farming, part of my interest was in finding ways to do as much work by hand or by animal power as possible.  I still enjoy physical work and am striving to maintain a place for it, and for the use of direct elemental power from wind a role as well.  However I am not getting any younger, and over time my determination to turn back the clock and reinvent the relationship between farming and physical work has given way somewhat to a desire to see this kind of work advance and thrive in the world as it is now, a world in which we farmers are shorthanded and busy and doing too many jobs.  

Circumstances are not so different here on Japan's northern island, where I see a sort of reflection of myself in the farmers like Orisaka-san, doing a lot of work alone, or with just a little outside help.  I am glad to have a connection to this part of the world.  It is a real pleasure to see some friends from the last visit and to make some new ones, and to see flowers begin to push young shoots through the soil in this exotic yet strangely familiar place.

Almost harvest time!

Some things are really hard to wait for.  Harvesting grain is I guess one of those things.  I took some time in August for some family downtime, so now that the kids are back in school I rushed back into the work in anticipation of harvest.

Beautiful Akitakomachi rice plants

Beautiful Akitakomachi rice plants

 

For us to harvest rice, we need ripeness, of course.  As the rice ripens on the stalk, the grain becomes progressively harder and dryer.  The plant also dries out and yellows, transmitting all its remaining vitality to the grain.  Last year I began harvesting on September 27th.  This year, despite the differences in the season--this year was cold to start but warm, sunny and dry in the middle and finish--the grain seems to be ripening on about the same schedule.

Some volunteers came last weekend, and though the grain wasn't ripe enough yet--a kernel would still crumble somewhat when peeled, and wouldn't satisfyingly crack when munched--we busied ourselves with retrieving the duck netting and various field supplies.  Warm, humid September weather--and a lot of work to bring the 3000 or so feet of electric and nylon fencing in and organize it all!  Normally I tend to put this kind of work off, big-time, and usually don't get to it until November.  It's good to be ahead of the game on this one count.

Field supplies all brought home and organized!

Field supplies all brought home and organized!

There have been several other rice projects hurried along in late-season.  Several engineer friends and I have been going back and forth about the issue of drying.  Drying grain is one of the curses of labor-efficient modern agriculture.  When we started out, we hand threshed.  Then we progressed to a thresher.  When you use a thresher, you bind sheaves in the field (as we did in 2012 with 12 workers from the Burlington Nepali community to help!) and then hang them to dry somewhere.  If the sheaves are hung properly, time is on your side and they will surely dry out eventually.  But I was frustrated with the time and effort required with this method and also the persistent loss of rice at every handling step, and from birds and rodents as well.  I decided a more 20th century approach would be necessary, and in 2013 ordered a rice mini-combine from China.  A "combine" harvests and threshes in one single step.

The combine has the delightful feature of putting your grain into a bag right out there in the field, and a field of standing grain is reduced to chopped straw spread everywhere and a wonderful pile of burlap bags full of rice.  The only problem is that those bags are kind of like time bombs, as they usually have moisture content too high to be stored in bulk for any length of time.

The grain needs to be promptly spread out and air and/or heat applied to it.  We built a simple forced air dryer that could dry out one ton in a few days.  But starting last year, our volume of production, combined with the number of varieties we grow, meant that we would need a larger and more powerful drying solution.  Unfortunately, the commercial grain dryers I was able to locate cost around $15,000.  A little beyond my budget.

However we were able to design, with the involvement of my engineer friends, an affordable rice dryer in the spirit of Good Companion Bakery.  Made out of concrete blocks and oil drums, with a mesh floor to spread the rice out on, it is designed to dry down about 3000 lbs in 12 hours.  Giving it its maiden voyage in just a week or so!

 

The plastic roof is removable, and the hole in the side is there to accommodate a large squirrel-cage blower.

Additionally, we built several grain bins to hold the rice once dried.  The most exciting feature of these bins is that a machine will load them, and gravity will unload them.  I figure that in the past I have had to lift each pound of rice I produce about 15 times.  The new operation aims to cut that in half, with a variety of scale-appropriate techniques.

A visiting friend and volunteer from Quebec commented in French that our approach is "rentable," for which there's no perfect English translation, but it means basically that it's affordable and easy to scale up as needed. 

Once the dust has settled after harvest, I look forward to getting some of this rice into your hands!  I am particularly excited about two new Hokkaido varieties we are working with this year, but everything looks great and there will be plenty of it.  The pre-order system through this site is still live and I would encourage anyone with the ability to pick up locally to order soon.  I am starting also to make some third-party wholesale arrangements, and I am sure that whatever the yield works out to be, it won't stick around for too long!

Almost Coasting

It has always been hard for me to do a good job documenting a thing that I'm doing while also doing it.  Just the doing takes all my attention, making it very hard to remember to take a camera into the field, or, if I do remember to bring it, remembering where I set it down, or to bring it back.  Still, what's going on out here is pretty cool, so I continue to try.  And fortunately my wife Erica does a great job snapping photos and taking video where I fall short, so we have lots of fantastic photos this year!

The rice farming season has a duck-rice period, during which ducks are managed in the rice paddy, from about June 20th until August 7th.  During that time they work their magic, suppressing weeds by swimming and trampling around and sometimes eating them outright.  They don't harm the rice because they are too small to bull the rice over (and they grow at about the same pace as the rice) and because they don't eat rice leaves, which are high in silica, making them scratchy.

Now we're coming to the end of this phase.  The ducks haven't done a perfect job of weed control.  I am still learning how to execute the method.  For it to work perfectly you need good water depth everywhere, and my paddies are still somewhat uneven, meaning there are still super-deep areas and very shallow or even unflooded areas within the same parcel.  Eventually I will get these all sorted out, but for now it makes for some difficult areas to plant in and difficult areas for weed control.

So, I have had to go in and work alongside the ducks in the rougher patches and rip the larger weeds out by hand.  I couldn't do all of what was needed, but enough to make a difference.  And all told, there is more lush, feed free high quality rice than we have ever had.  Coming into August, there is less and less human (and duck)  intervention can do to affect the outcome, so I call this period "coasting."  It gives me a little breathing room to relax and plan for harvest.

The rice is just beginning to flower now.  These same flowers will, in a few weeks, begin to fill with a liquid that eventually hardens into rice grains.  By that time the ducks need to be long gone, because even though they don't eat rice leaves, they will happily eat rice grain.

Fortunately this year's ducks have a great gig lined up for them as orchard cleaners and groundskeepers in the Mad River Valley, where one of my rice customers is looking forward to taking them on.

Duck deployment 2016

Now it's the tail end of June and the rice fields are greening up.  This year we planted almost exactly 3 acres of four Japanese varieties, Hokkai, Akitakomachi, Oborozuki and Nanatsuboshi.  All are doing well.

about 250 ducks have already been released into the rice paddies and the remaining 150 will go out tomorrow or Friday.  This development in the season is a turning point--the point when hopefully the animals start, collectively, doing more work than the humans.

Duck and rice farming has a lot of technique wrapped up in it.  The plants, the ducks, and the field conditions, and the timing all have to be just right for the method to work.  We depend on the ducks to keep our fields weed-free and for fertility.  A few years I tried to rely on hand weeding and I can't go there again.  Pulling up weeds one square foot at a time while standing in deep mud is not a great pastime.  It's all right for a very small scale project but for one like ours, which aims to produce tons rather than pounds of rice, hand weeding is no option for my 44-year old body.  Chemicals are no kind of option either.  But duck rice farming is an effective answer to the problem--if you can pull it off!

Last year we only planted about one acre but we actually managed to get the timing and the above variables right, or close enough to right.  Timely introduction of the ducklings into the crop seems to be key.  We noticed differences in weed pressure, and, after that, in yield and quality, between plots where we got the ducks in within 10 days and plots where we did not.  This year the majority of the plots we are farming got their ducklings swiftly.  That remaining group of ducklings I mentioned earlier that is still cooling their heels in the barn (do ducks have heels?) is going to be a little late but I think close enough.  It's all a big experiment.