- Ben Falk
Parts of Vermont resemble an inland sea lately, with roads and fields underwater. Pools have formed where there used to be none, and Lake Champlain has inched its way into lakeside homes and parks. On a hillside nestled in the woods of Moretown, however, the constant rain is a boon of sorts.
Terraced into a hillside farm here are ponds, culverts and two rice paddies as wide as semis, their still surfaces dotted with brown clumps from last year’s crop. The owner of this 10-acre farm, Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design, worked with his colleagues to carve them out of the earth three years ago. “Not many have thought to grow rice here as a grain,” says Falk, holding up some rice seed soaking in a jar of water. But rice, he asserts, could eventually become the most robust grain crop for rainy and mountainous Vermont, especially given that small-scale growth entails little energy expenditure.
Considering its status as one of the world’s oldest and most prolific crops, rice is curiously absent from most parts of this country, especially the Northeast. The grain is generally associated with areas that have long, hot growing seasons. But when Falk and his colleagues used an excavator to carve out their pair of foot-deep paddies, they did so hoping rice could eventually become a low-input storage crop in rainy, rocky Vermont.
That initial burst of fossil-fuel use was the biggest energy expenditure in the entire process, says Falk. Minimizing reliance on petroleum is a hallmark of Whole Systems Design’s work. Falk, who has a master’s degree in land-use planning and serves on the board of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, works with land planners, builders, educators and designers to create buildings and scalable landscapes based on permaculture principles. “We’re really developing a lifestyle that’s resilient. It’s a response to peak oil,” he explains.
The lab where these concepts are put into action comprises the mud, grass, grit and creatures of this Moretown mecca — a series of interconnected ponds, gardens, orchards, streams and paddies. Standing in a light drizzle on the porch of Whole Systems’ studio, Falk points out what is at first invisible.
The still pond at our feet is filled with perch and bluegill fish. Nearby are bare currant and blackberry bushes, as well as pear, apple, peach, quince and chestnut trees. Sheep bleat from a nearby barn, and a barrel collects rainwater as it drips from a drain pipe. A gaggle of ducklings forms a noisy flotilla on the ponds.
Down the hillside from where we stand are the two paddies — or nitta in Japanese, a word that translates as “new rice paddy.” This summer marks the third year the crew here will have grown brown, short-grain japonica rice — a variety that flourishes in cooler climates and is widely grown in Japan.
“We’re pushing [rice] into a colder climate than it probably has been pushed before, but the architecture has been done all over the world,” says Falk. “People have been figuring out how to live on terraced landscapes for thousands of years, and getting a high yield. It seems rice is the only crop we can do it with.”
In 2006, Takeshi and Linda Akaogi began experimenting with growing rice on their Westminster farm. Eric Andrus of Vergennes’ Boundbrook Farm expanded on that research to grow rice, some of which City Market will sell this year. “You always think of rice being grown in really wet, tropical places. Also, it’s not part of our traditional diet,” says Heather Darby, an agronomist and nutrition management specialist with the University of Vermont Extension who has consulted with rice growers statewide. “Yet I think, as farming is changing, diversified farming is becoming more mainstream. People are looking for new crops to grow,” Darby says.
Like his rice-farming compatriots, Falk believes that growing the grain in a hilly landscape of high water tables, poor soil and a cool climate is a no-brainer. “Vermont is not blessed with deep agricultural soil. So it means growing grain on thin soil,” he points out. One rice-growing part of the world shares those conditions: “Vermont could look like northern Japan,” Falk says.
The two regions both have craggy mountains swathed in pines and rocky soil that makes agriculture challenging. Parts of northern Japan also endure long winters. One thing Vermonters don’t currently share with the Japanese, however, is a terraced landscape ribbed with rice paddies.
Listening to Falk wax poetic about rice, it’s easy to believe the grain could become the state’s supercrop. After all, climate-change indicators predict Vermont is only going to get wetter and warmer. “Perfect for rice,” says Falk drily. When asked why rice has yet to show up on the state’s agricultural landscape, he points to a lack of innovation in our farming culture. Falk still thinks of Whole System’s paddies as experimental.
Rice’s four-month growing season certainly poses challenges in this climate. Frost kills the grain, so the seedlings need a head start indoors. The folks at Whole Systems begin by soaking seed rice in water, then they plant it in trays filled with more water and compost. “We basically have to steal a month of the growing environment,” Falk says. When the nearly 3000 seedlings are a month old, they’re ready to be transplanted into paddies.
While growing, the plants are nourished via fertigation — the delivery of nutrients through water. At Whole Systems, this comes from the quacking ducks that roam the property, eating insects and slugs and pooping in the ponds, which cascade down to the paddies and fertilize the growing plants. The system uses virtually no energy, which is the point. “We will probably find that many, many agricultural systems will thrive through fertigation,” says Falk, who calls the paddies “essentially edible storm-water-retention basins.” Overflow from the paddies trickles farther downhill to fruit trees and berry plants, so very little of the farm’s nutrients are lost to runoff.
Falk and crew use one paddy as a control and the other as a variable in terms of plant spacing and feeding. The plants typically “head out,” or begin producing tiny grains, by late June. By September, they’re ready to harvest, which is done by cutting the base of the stalks with a knife or scythe.
Together, the two paddies yield more than 100 pounds of rice, which would mean 5000 pounds an acre — twice the yield of “terrestrial” grain such as wheat or barley. “Because you’re delivering nutrients via water rather than mechanically, we can grow 100 to 150 pounds of rice with a fraction of the effort we grow vegetables,” Falk says.
That production is likely to stay on a small, homesteading scale in New England. “I think the major limitation to [the crop’s] wider adoption is infrastructure,” says Darby, referring to earth-moving equipment needed to create the paddies, as well as harvesting and dehulling machines. Despite that, she fields regular calls about the crop. “I’ve worked with many of the farmers who are growing rice and people [who] are interested in it. For anybody who wants to feed themselves, it’s wonderful,” she says. “A lot of it is really, really small scale.”
Alongside Whole Systems’ experiments with rice, Falk and his colleagues concentrate on what he calls the most “resilient” foods — perennials such as fruit. “I wouldn’t want most of my land to be rice,” he concedes. “I want a multigenerational food system, mostly perennially based.” The staff and interns of Whole Systems also grow a variety of mushrooms — dubbed “woody” agriculture on their website.
The nonprofit keeps up a robust instruction schedule throughout the year, teaching such skills as “Polyculture Planting” and rapid topsoil formation, and offering classes on chainsaws, knot tying, site mapping and, of course, growing rice in cold climates. Whole Systems has built rice paddies for two private clients so far, and taught scores of students the basics for their own production. Falk encourages visits to the farm, where sharing skills is an integral part of the ethos.
Back inside, in the basement of the Whole Systems studio, upside-down bundles of drying rice hang from beams. To the untrained eye, they’re dead ringers for wheat, except for the tiny brown beads at the end of each stem. Pinch the bottom of a sheath, and a grain of rice pops into your hand; if you rub it with your fingers, the hull eventually comes off.
As Darby points out, this labor-intensive hulling by hand has been the spanner in the works of large-scale rice consumption. Falk has been using a wooden roller and lathe to spring the grains free of their papery sheaths, but the process is too laborious. So he went on the hunt for a dehuller — and found one just last week.
“Any day now, we’ll have a meal of perch on a bed of rice with shitake mushrooms and mesclun greens, with maybe some wild leeks, fiddleheads and duck eggs,” Falk suggests. “That’s a culinary experience that you don’t usually think of as locavore.”