Despite the fact that human activity has come to a grinding halt here in Italy due to the decisive measures put into place to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, plants are going about their regular business. As stewards of those plants, so must we.
In addition to our normal crop production practices, we have a couple of interesting experiments underway this season. While very different, both trials are aimed at diminishing the resource use and improving the sustainability of our organic rice production. There is no hiding behind the fact that rice is a resource-intensive crop, and that even if producing it organically decreases the amount of resources used, there is much room for improvement.
The first trial builds on the work that we’ve done to improve soil quality and treat a rice field as an ecosystem. Developed by a collaborative research project between organic rice farmers in Northern Italy and the University of Milan, the techniques we are testing differ significantly from classic rice production practices. We are the first farm in Tuscany to test these practices.
We normally start the process of preparing our rice fields nine months before planting. In September, we plant cover crops – “secondary” crops that provide any number of benefits to the “primary” crops and that won’t be harvested but will be tilled back into the soil – to improve soil fertility, manage weed pressure, and improve biodiversity. These plants grow over the winter, and we then work them back into the soil in March and April. In May, we plant rice.
In our trial rice field, we also planted cover crops in September but the species and techniques were different. One of the species planted has an allelopathic effect – ie, releases chemicals that inhibit another plant’s growth – on one the hardest weeds to manage in rice production. For this “effect” to be successful, the rice seeds must be planted directly into the just-trimmed cover crop, without tilling the soil before planting. If we are able to successfully grow rice this way, then we will be able to decrease weed pressure, till the soil less and therefore retain its structure and improve its quality, and decrease water use.
Our second trial involves a small area of land and is aimed primarily at reducing water use in rice production. Because of our climate and our soil type, we usually plant rice in an already-flooded field. This year, we are partnering with one of the agricultural research agencies in Italy to test a system of drip irrigation rather than flood irrigation. “Drip” irrigation refers to a precision technology for irrigating crops through tubes on the ground that release water in drops. It requires an investment in irrigation infrastructure.
While this irrigation technique has been tested in our area to grow conventional rice, it has not been tested in organic rice production. If it works and provides the same quality in our rice crop as the flooding does, then we will consider making a significant investment in irrigation equipment to significantly reduce our water consumption.
As a farmer grappling with how to make my farm resilient in a time of climate crisis, and in a world in which input costs and production costs just increase, I am constantly thinking about how to improve our practices. Testing out new practices, however, doesn’t just happen overnight. In both trials, I have technical support and people whom I can rely on to help me translate practices that work in another place or in another system onto my land. The costs of these trials must also not break the bank, and I have to make sure that I end up with a harvestable crop at the end of the trial. The trials are sized so that if there is crop failure, I won’t lose much money and we will have hopefully learned a great deal throughout the experiments.
The process of sustainability is just that – a process. Trials like these – well-thought-out, with technical support, and addressing very specific objectives – are crucial to the continued improvement of our farming system. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on how the trials go and what the results will be!