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In 2012 we got our first transplanter, which was superseded this year by two Iseki transplanters from Japan.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!