The first sustainable farming initiative leveraging Israel’s unparalleled research and innovation in water technology to reduce rice-crop water use will begin this spring at Conaway Ranch in Woodland, California. The project was announced last night at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the U.S. for a rice crop,” explains Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, president, principal and chief executive officer of Conaway Preservation Group, which owns the 17,000-acre Conaway Ranch. “We couldn’t ask for better partners: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research and Netafim USA, the world’s leading drip irrigation manufacturer, both of which have experience growing rice in arid regions. This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water in California if widely adopted.”
Drought is a continued concern for growers in California, and this project seeks to better understand if rice can be grown effectively with sub-surface drip irrigation. The method consists of a series of pipes that deliver water directly to the root zone of the plant and has the potential to reduce rice-crop water usage, as well as save on application of fertilizers and improve weed control.
“As a partner in this cutting-edge project, we are hopeful that this concept could provide farmers with a revolutionary form of rice production not only in California, but wherever rice is grown worldwide,” says Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for Lundberg Family Farms, which is one of the world’s largest producers of organic rice and whole grain products. “We are always looking to implement new technologies that can benefit growers and promote sustainable farming practices, and we hope that the project’s success can be duplicated to improve organic weed management while producing environmental and conservation benefits.”
Over the past 18 months, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) Prof. Eilon Adar has visited several times to meet with California legislators and water resource officials, discussing how Israel, an arid country, has created a surplus of water through innovation, technology and effective water management policies. For this project, Conaway Ranch executives are leveraging the expertise of Prof. Adar, who is one of Israel’s leading water experts and former director of the Zuckerberg Institute at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.
“After evaluating a number of options to enhance water use efficiency, Conaway Ranch decided to move forward with a subsurface drip irrigation pilot project on a 50- to 100-acre area for rice,” Prof. Adar explains. “We’ve outlined the testing procedures necessary to maximize success, based on experience growing a variety of crops in arid climates using sub-surface drip irrigation. The Zuckerberg Institute is pleased to be playing a leading role, providing knowledge and expertise to help California farmers reduce their water consumption.”
In meetings and at public forums, Prof. Adar has highlighted ways Israel is closing the gap between water supply and demand, including improving irrigation efficiency, expanding wastewater reclamation and reuse, as well as engineering drought-tolerant crops.
Netafim USA agronomists have conducted a few similar rice crop trials in other parts of the world. Installation of the system and the first plantings at Conaway Ranch are scheduled for completion this spring. Based on results from previous projects, this trial is expected to produce an improvement in yield, while reducing water use.
“As drought conditions persist, efficiency in every aspect of farming is critical to the sustainability of California farming,” says Scott Warr, Netafim USA regional sales manager. “Through research trials and partnerships, Netafim continues to be committed to providing growers with access to viable solutions that address the challenge of maintaining profitable farming in a resource-limited world.”
“We fully believe that Conaway Ranch and farmers have a responsibility to conserve water,” Tsakopoulos says. “We need to continue to conduct research and develop methods to use the water most efficiently for crops, while also conserving critical wildlife resources.”
“By researching drip irrigation technology for rice cultivation, the Conaway Ranch owners are demonstrating their commitment to smart water conservation and long-term sustainability,” says Woodland California Mayor Tom Stallard. “We are so pleased to see this progressive practice being studied so close to our community.”