When you think of Tuscany, you probably imagine beautiful rolling hills covered by vineyards and olive trees.
You probably don’t think about rice.
Sustainable production begins with a knowledge of the land and of what a piece of land is suited to grow.
While there are plenty of wine-producing hills nearby, the farm is in a flat marshland area along the coast. This pocket of flat land has allowed for the development of larger-scale agriculture and grain production.
The soils contain a high percentage of clay, which means that they hold water and drain with difficulty. When it rains a lot, water stagnates and the fields take a long time to dry. After a very wet winter, it is a real challenge to get into the fields to prepare them for spring planting.
The flatness and the high amount of clay in the soil create suitable conditions for rice production.
The Very Small World of Tuscan Rice
The main rice-growing regions of Italy are in the North. In rural Lombardy and Piedmont, there are rice fields for as far as the eye can see.
The decision to try rice in Tuscany occurred in the 1960s when my grandparents were experimenting with different crops to diversify farm production.
Before deciding to grow rice, my grandparents tried a variety of crops – including grapes for wine. The grapes were a short-lived experiment (family lore suggests that the resulting wine was awful) but in time they settled on a set of crops that we are still growing today, including rice.
In 1968, my grandparents planted their first crop of rice. The success of the crop meant that they continued to plant rice, and invest in the creation of new rice fields and in the infrastructure necessary to flood the fields.
Today, the Tuscan rice growers are a small group – our farm, a few of my neighbors, and a guy outside of Siena. We are the only ones growing rice organically.
It is hard to talk about rice production without talking about water consumption. Producing food requires water, and agriculture consumes about 70% of the world’s water.
Rice is a water-intensive crop because it germinates and grows in water, requiring the fields to remain flooded for several months.
To develop techniques for decreasing water use, I have partnered with the University of Pisa on a research project. We recently submitted the proposal and don’t know whether it will get funded, but the goal is to trial new irrigation infrastructure to minimize the flooding required.
One More Step Closer to Planting
This week we finished all of precision work in our rice fields. To ensure uniform flooding, rice paddies have a series of special field preparations that differ from those used for other crops.
The primary precision work involves leveling the rice field with a leveler. Using a pre-programmed depth, the leveler moves dirt around a field until it is as flat as possible.
Next, we use another piece of equipment that makes ditches for water drainage but does not ruin the flatness of the field.
There is beauty and a tranquility in these lines of precision. So rarely are there precise, clean lines in farming.
They are fleeting, though. Next week, we will start to flood the fields and the lines will shift, grow murky, lose their starkness as they get ready to produce rice.