When it comes to growing rice, images of China, Indonesia or other semitropical spots come to mind-- but Moretown, Vermont?
"People are definitely surprised initially," said Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design. "But then when they start learning about it, they think obviously that makes a lot of sense."
Falk is a land designer and new author. He says that in a changing climate with extremes of drought or rain, the resiliency of growing rice may be ideally suited here.
"Things are changing and we're in for very different times than we've had for a generation or few," he said. "And the way we grow food and the way we live is going to adapt to these changing times and rice is one of those-- just one of the many strategies for adaptation."
Since moving to his hillside farm 10 years ago, Falk has terraced the land, creating a series of constructed wetlands that he uses for rice paddies. And for the last five years he's researched growing different cold climate varieties of short-grain brown rice. The seeds are germinated in a greenhouse starting in April. The shoots are then transplanted into the five rice paddies in mid to late May. And the rice is harvested in early September.
"If we bred rice to be even shorter season-- which would be very possible-- rice could be a highly viable crop in Vermont," Falk said.
Whether it's rice that's the focus or other crops, Falk says the key to the whole system is the ponds, slowing down the flow of water and preserving soil and its nutrients.
"This farm so far is proving that it can still have a durable yield, a reliable output, whether it's a drought year or a flood year. And that's the important part of resilience is to have not all your eggs in one basket," Falk said.
The idea seems to be catching on. A handful of other farms from Putney to Ferrisburgh are developing rice-growing techniques for the Green Mountains, and UVM held a conference on the topic this past winter. With the small scale of operations, Falk is the first to admit that growers aren't ready to ramp up just yet. But for him, that's part of the point.
"Oftentimes we actually want to scale things down to be most resilient," he said. "Scaling up shouldn't always be the answer with what we're trying to achieve. And that's one of the beauties of Vermont agriculture-- we are scaled down. It might be our strongest point."