Foodways Texas: Rice and Water


Happy Monday everyone! I’m back from spending some time at the Foodways Texas ‘Farm to Market’ symposium on Friday and Saturday in College Station – a few days of great food, lots of learning and meeting loads of intelligent, interesting and fun people.

We heard talks about organic vs. local food, Texas wine (surprisingly delicious!), growing olives and grapefruits in Texas, the history of rice in the region and the issues rice farmers are currently facing because of drought conditions, and about the supply chain involved in feeding Houston (the paper that I’d worked on with my wonderful mentor at UT, Dr Robyn Metcalfe). We also went to explore a local farm, Ronin Cooking where we toured around at sunset with wine and saw possibly the cutest piglet ever to piglet. Seriously.

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One of the most interesting sessions for me was the one about rice growing in Texas and the difficulties that come with such a water-dependent crop in a drought-crippled state. I’m no stranger to hearing stories like this – for years, I’ve wondered about how and why a drought-prone continent like Australia would grow a crop rice. In fact, it’s something I even did a short paper on, back in the first year of my MSc.

In the case of Australia, what I found was extensive innovation and efforts towards ensuring maximum efficiency from minimum input. To make the most of the water used to flood the rice fields, other crops that can utilise subsoil moisture are planted, like barley or wheat. Additionally, water use per hectare has dropped 30% in the past decade, while rice production has increased by 60% (savewater.com.au). I’m still dubious about rice-growing being viable in Australia in the long-term, (as well as feeling that the water used could perhaps be better utilised elsewhere), but for now, improvements like these have made rice a profitable and competitive industry.

Here in Texas though, the situation seems even more dire. It’s also much more emotionally driven, with large urban populations depending on the same water supply as rice farmers, i.e. the Colorado River. The Highland Lakes (just a little way north of Austin) are currently at only 38% of their capacity, which has a huge impact on those farmers in the Lower Colorado Rive area, where most rice in Texas is farmed. Furthermore, as Neena Satija, one of the panelists for the talk pointed out, this is unlikely to ever increase to levels which will allow for water restrictions in Austin to be removed – which obviously means that the challenges for Texas rice growers aren’t going away any time soon. Complicating matters further, they are unable to supplement their income as Australian growers can, through the planting and harvesting of other crops. While nights in Australia’s Riverina region where rice is grown tend to get quite cool, they remain warm, even hot here in Texas. This means that rice grows more slowly, not allowing for that extra window to grow other things.

All of this begs the question: how on earth do we deal with this? You can’t tell someone whose family has farmed rice for generations to ‘just stop.’ And as far as I can tell, you’ll take the lush green lawns of Austinites from their cold, dead hands. I honestly saw sprinklers running outside Sam’s Club at 2pm on a 100 degree afternoon. The situation is emotive enough that at Foodways, there was even a disagreement on what should be a hard, cold fact: the price of water for farmers. Neena contended that this was $6.50 per acre foot, but this was immediately disputed by another panelist, Ted Wilson from the Agrilife Research Center in Beaumont, who provided the figure $920-$960 per acre foot. This is a difference of over $900! Where on earth does the truth lie in all this?

While all of these arguments are going on, the drought still hasn’t broken, Austinites are still living with water restrictions (albeit, not terribly strict ones IMHO) and rice farmers downstream still don’t know if they’ll be able to plant a crop this year, or for that matter, next year. I’m not sure what the solution to all this is, but drawing attention to it is important. Urban Texans need to know what the implications of their desires for green lawns and clean cars are.  Texas’ future as a rice growing state is facing a greater threat than ever before, and the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers’ are in the hands of rain clouds and water lawmakers.