Defining Zero Grade Rice Farming

Zero grade rice farming is a win for the bottom line and the environment.  Is zero grade rice a new food label on rice that you need to avoid?  Is it a failing grade given by quality control personnel who reject below-standard rice?  It is neither of those things.  Zero grade refers to the slope of the land in the field where the rice is grown.  

 cousins playing in the water of a zero grade rice field

cousins playing in the water of a zero grade rice field

Looking for a Better Way

My dad often refined his practices, looking for ways to decrease costs and increase yield.   He took many risks through the years to keep pressing toward this end.  Some attempts paid off and some flopped.  But if he had never tried new ways, our farming operation would not be where it is today.  One of the biggest risks he took was to convert all his rice fields to zero grade fields.

 our farm full of zero grade rice fields

our farm full of zero grade rice fields

A New Way is Discovered

My brothers were farming with Dad in the 1990's, and since they had been raised to constantly explore improvement opportunities, their curiosity was peaked when they heard about a new way to grow rice.  Wow!  Now that sounded like it was worth pursuing.  After connecting with Isbell farms and doing some research, they realized that zero grade farming was an innovative way of controlling the specific amount of water that rice requires throughout its growing season.  Rice needs to grow in water, but….not too much water.  Most varieties need to grow in water that is kept steady at about two inches deep.

 a recently planted rice field with contour levees to manage the required water levels for rice

a recently planted rice field with contour levees to manage the required water levels for rice

Why Do We Change?

The traditional way to manage water in rice fields is by building levees throughout the field that wind from one side of the field to the other based on the natural slope of the field. The land within the levees is called a patty.  Each patty is level and the patty next to it is slightly lower.  When the farmer is ready to lower the water level or drain the water off the field for harvesting, several men walk through the field following the levees and lower the “spills”.  A spill is a strategic place in the levee that is opened by digging a hole through the levee and lining the hole with plastic to allow water to pass from one patty to another without letting the soil wash away.  Spills are raised or rebuilt by hand (shovel) with the original dirt when the farmer needs to keep the water within the patty during the growing season.

 dirt moving equipment following GPS guided software to level one of our new fields to zero grade

dirt moving equipment following GPS guided software to level one of our new fields to zero grade

Zero Grade Rice Farming

The “new” way my family had heard about was to grow rice in zero grade fields.  Zero grade means the field is perfectly level from one end to the other.  At the time, this expensive, precision leveling process required laser-guided dirt moving equipment to cut off high spots and fill low areas in a field to bring it to a place of being perfectly level or having a “zero grade” of sloping from one side of the field to the other.  You can think of this large area as now being flat like a table top, whereas before it had high and low spots throughout that had to be managed with levees.  A border is built around the field in which all the soil stays within the confines of this area which drastically decreases erosion.  Additionally, a drainage system is designed throughout the field which consists of a ditch bordering the field and water furrows that help the water quickly drain off the field.   

 harvesting one of the zero grade fields on our land:  combines and tractors pulling grain carts with ease

harvesting one of the zero grade fields on our land:  combines and tractors pulling grain carts with ease

Business Decision

My family was motivated by two things:  1) the decrease in labor hours that would be required since the field would not be full of levees that had to be managed by hand and 2) the increase in fuel and equipment efficiency since the harvest machinery, like combines and tractors pulling grain carts, could move through the field much more easily without having to slow down and creep over levees often.  

 young rice plants peeking through soil covered in last year's straw -- no tilling

young rice plants peeking through soil covered in last year's straw -- no tilling

A Win for the Bottom Line and the Environment 

Little did they know the environmental gains that would be proven years after their decision to convert their entire rice acreage to zero grade fields.  This sustainable practice allows for more controlled water levels, less total water usage, little soil erosion, no till farming, and significantly decreased greenhouse gas emissions from operating farm equipment.  By continuing to perfect environmentally friendly practices like these, agriculture professionals are reaching the goal of feeding the estimated 9 billion people who will be eating food around the world in 2020.