Unconventional Farmers: Farming for Wildlife

Swans over the Massa family farm. (Courtesy of Greg Massa.)

The other night I met up with my friend Greg Massa, a fourth-generation rice farmer in California. He’s a maverick in the rice world for many reasons, not the least of which is that a few years ago he decided to stop pouring his product into the anonymous commodity market and began selling it instead at farmers markets, one pound at a time. (To enable this, he had to ask the mill to keep his rice separate from the rest it was processing. This meant that for the first time, Greg was able to eat his own rice—something none of his neighbor-farmers had ever done. It was, to his surprise and delight, delicious.)

As a young man, Greg left the farm. For years he and his wife, Raquel, worked as tropical ecologists, but in time they came to feel they could have the greatest, real-time impact by doing practical conservation work—as farmers. It was pretty basic: by transitioning the Massa family farm to organic production, they would be one less rice farm treating its flooded fields with herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides, which would drain into the river, and then into the ocean, and impact every ecosystem along the way. This was particularly important in their area, the Sacramento Valley, which is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway. They began transitioning the farm in 1998 and never looked back.

The other night, Greg told me about some more targeted wildlife work he’s doing on the farm, laughing as he explained that its benefits were not quite so cut and dry. His family has been restoring the vegetation along the railroad tracks alongside their property, which has encouraged wildlife to come up from the nearby river and onto the farm. The good side: he now sees river otters swimming in his rice fields, eating crawdads as they go. The bad side: beavers have moved in and set to damming up his field, which raises the water level and drowns his rice plants. More recently, he was thrilled to see a bald eagle touch down just outside his house—but less thrilled to see it was about to carry away one of his chickens. “It’s a work in progress,” he told me, shaking his head but also, as always, smiling. His blog has two good posts (a little old, but still fun) about other ups and downs of mixing the rice business with the pleasures of wildlife.

Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of the recent Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint).

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