It’s mid-May and we are in the middle of rice-planting season. The days are getting longer, the weather is predictably variable, and we are focused on working through the many steps required to finish off field prep and get those rice seeds in the ground. In addition to our normal rice production techniques, we have two exciting new experiments, one of which is already underway – and which requires fermenting the rice field.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fermentation fan. Fermentation is just amazing and gives us gifts such as wine, cheese, bread, and the list goes on and on. I’m a big vegetable fermenter and just pulled out a crock of newly fermented sauerkraut this weekend. I have a multi-month fermentation process that should yield miso happening right now in the garage. 

When I heard about a new rice production technique that involved a fermentation phase, I started to do the research necessary to figure out whether it was applicable to my soil and climate conditions. Pioneered by a few organic rice farmers in Northern Italy, the technique puts together a number of concepts that many forward-thinking farmers are experimenting with, and adds a decisive step. 

One of the most difficult aspects of organic farming is weed management. Prohibited from using herbicides, organic farmers rely mainly of mechanical means and a variety of different types of equipment to reduce the number of weeds. Rice is a particularly challenging crop to manage weeds in because many pieces of equipment simply don’t work in a flooded field. Weeds in rice fields are particularly fierce, and the rice plant is not as good a competitor against the weeds as crops like wheat tend to be. 

I have tried many different practices against the weeds in my rice fields, and it’s still very much a work in progress. Due to the weather conditions, last year was a very difficult year against the weeds, and even my conventional neighbors – who sprayed throughout the season – had trouble managing those pesky plants. Weed management is a journey, with no real end in sight.

The fermentation technique uses plants and bacteria against the weeds. It starts in September, when we plant a mix of rye and vetch into the future rice field. The rye has an allelopathic impact on the future rice weeds in the fermentation phase that will occur in the spring, and the vetch is a legume that provides much-needed nutrients to the soil that will be later consumed by the rice plants. The rye and vetch grow throughout the fall and winter (when it rarely gets below freezing here). By the time May comes around, there is a beautiful field of rye, vetch, and other spontaneous plants, and tons of ladybugs. 

We plant the rice seeds directly into the rye/vetch field, with the rye and vetch still standing. We then immediately mow down the rye and vetch, and flood the field. The mix of mowed-down plants and water within a day or so starts to create a fermentation. The field begins to bubble, the plants begin to decompose, and there begins to be that borderline-sweet/rot smell that accompanies any good fermentation. The fermentation phase is meant to significantly slow down the weeds and basically stop one of the most difficult weeds from germinating. Once peak fermentation has happened, you must remove the water right away. 

From theory to practice there can be a long road, and we will have to see how the field develops. I applied all of my kitchen fermentation skills to the management of the field fermentation and the water levels, which are the key factor in managing the fermentation. I am also regularly on the phone with the Northern Italian farmer who has been applying this technique for many years, and I am extremely grateful for her help. 

The main fermentation has passed and now I am waiting for the rice to germinate. This technique also delays rice germination, so it was the first field that we planted. If this technique works, then it would cause me to drastically overhaul our current rice planting techniques – for the better, I hope. 

I will keep you posted on our progress!

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