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Rice's Mantra: 'Do the Right Thing' on Farm


by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, September 11, 2020

Scott Rice's concern for Gulf of Mexico water quality begins with the all but dry Gloor Ditch outside of Wanatah.

On this last Monday morning of August, there is nary a trickle running through the deep drain splitting Rice's square-mile field in rain-deprived LaPorte County. Looking south, seed corn is maturing to the right, and to the left a portion of his 261 acres of tomatoes destined for the Red Gold processing plant is being harvested by Rice's son, James, and a handful of workers.

The time will come, however, when great amounts of precipitation will fall across this area. When it does, Rice is confident the conservation measures his eponymous fifth-generation operation, Rice Farms, are employing will minimize the amount of fertilizer, herbicides and other inputs reaching the Gloor Ditch via ground water.

As a result, those chemicals won't make it to the Rosenbaum Arm and the Kuehn Ditch, which empties into the Pitner Ditch, which drains into the Kankakee River, which connects to the Illinois River, a principal tributary of the Mississippi River, which ends at the Gulf of Mexico, which has been adversely affected by agricultural runoff for decades.

As a self-proclaimed responsible steward of the land, Rice feels compelled to be a good neighbor in an interconnected agricultural ecosystem covering thousands of square miles. Known for its diversity, Rice Farms has been raising tomatoes since the early eighties and also grows commercial corn and soybeans on 3,100 acres of mostly irrigated land.

"We're just trying to protect the ditch, protect the water," said Rice, who has been renting this particular parcel for two years. "We're just trying to do the right thing here."

It all starts with a trickle "times a thousand, or 10 thousand, or 100 thousand or maybe even a million situations like this," Rice continued. "On a personal level, we say at the very least we want to do no harm.

"The big picture is, this is the Mississippi River watershed and within Midwest farming, whoever's in that watershed impacts all of us, and that's a huge deal what happens down in the Gulf. It all matters. It's about everybody trying to do the right thing instead of everybody not caring."

Earlier in August, Rice Farms was recognized as the second-place finisher in the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and Red Gold Stewardship Award competition. Red Gold lauded Rice Farms for implementing "grass filter strips, constructed wetlands and herbaceous covers to promote soil health," which sound good in theory, but what do they look like and how do they work in realty?

On this day, Rice pointed out the 35-foot swath of rough, tough perennial grass he planted between the tomatoes and the ditch, and on a 15- to 20-foot strip that separates the other side of the waterway from his seed corn. The grass has actually taken root along the ditch banks, as well.

"The normal practice years ago would have been we would have just farmed right up to the edge (of the ditch)," he said. "That was standard practice with my dad or my grandpa, to plant to within 3 to 4 feet of it.

"But this ditch goes under (U.S.) 30 and eventually dumps into the Kankakee River about 15 miles away. When you do get those big rains that tend to want to wash into a ditch, this is a way stop or greatly reduce it. We didn't think this way in the '60 or even the '70s."

Farming has significantly evolved to be more cognizant of the role inputs play in water pollution since Rice graduated from Purdue University in 1979, when the environmental movement was just starting to build momentum nationally.

"The biggest single thing is an environmental benefit of not spraying to right up to here (at the water's edge)," he said. "The other thing is, this grass can help catch nutrient runoff and keep pesticide applications further away from the water source."

Of course, like everything else in agriculture, taking care of the environment comes with a price.

"The cost of doing this is giving up the production on this 40-foot piece of land forever, because land is expensive," Rice said. "But we're just trying to do things better than we used to. It's a journey and we're not there yet, and we're not trying to tell people we do everything perfect, but we hope to just keep doing more and more of these types of things."

Rice Farms is just one of hundreds of producers whose water finds its way to the Mississippi, but there's a multiplier effect that if adopted throughout the Kankakee watershed could one day help cure the massive dead zone raising havoc with fisheries in the Gulf.

"It's kind of the whole village concept," Rice said. "Purdue starts talking about it and then we see it in the ag press and pretty soon, it'll be like how cover crops have caught on. A lot of it is, 'Oh, my two neighbors are doing it, so maybe I oughta look into it' and that's how it happens.

"It's just an ongoing process and as the new generations come in, they're thinking this way more and more all the time. It's just a natural progression."

Speaking of cover crops, Rice pointed to an area where 16 rows of male corn were bordering his seed corn until a few weeks ago.

"The seed companies always require us to just knock it down – mow it or disc it, whatever," he said. "Just a couple-three years ago we starting coming in with our vertical tillage tool that has an air seeder and we seed winter wheat, which you can see coming up there.

"We do this because we found that by doing nothing, especially on our sandier ground, we can get wind and water erosion. We'll terminate (the wheat) close to planting time in April sometime, because this whole field will be soybeans next year with the rotation."

Such strategies dovetail with the corporate philosophy of Red Gold, which Rice said encourages and facilitates participation in environmentally friendly practices with its sponsorship of the award and doing things like helping farmers locate cover crop seed.

"Our commitment to stewardship and conservation is based on the core beliefs of the company and our growers that the most important thing we do in agriculture is to pass our land to the next generation in better shape than when we got it," said Steve Smith, Red Gold senior director of agriculture. "The Rices have demonstrated a strong commitment to ensuring the future of their operation through excellent practices.

"Our consumers are more interested in this aspect of their food supply than they have ever been before and growers like the Rices are critical in living out that commitment. It is a message we are proud to support and to highlight the sustainability of Red Gold products."

A child of the '70s, Rice considers himself an environmentalist with a progressive take on agriculture. James is even promoting Rice Farms' approach to farming with YouTube channel called, "Farm To Live: Rice Farms," which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCP31rwin_XyyDC0VIUeWjug.

"I don't know how you can farm and not be an environmentalist," Rice said. "We want the water quality to be better, and our practices are so much better than they were 50 years ago, but we want them to be better in terms of soil stewardship and nutrient management. Just in my lifetime, we switched from primary, bare-ground tillage to what we do today that's the least invasive—doing only what we have to, to get a seed in the ground and get it to produce.

"And, that keeps evolving. Our philosophy is win, win, win. If we do the right thing, it's a win for us, and it's a win for our landlords that own the land and it should be a win for the consumer, too. The market demands this from all of us in the food business and we have to be proactive in these areas."

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