Monday, August 21, 2017

Rice Fields - Beauty, Predators and Allies

Planting rice is not a joke
Just bending all day long
You can't even stand still
You can't even sit down.
-- Traditional Filipino Folk Song

Rice is a staple in Ecuadorian meals. It is generally served with your main meal regardless of what the entree is. A typical meal might include soup, chicken, rice, green salad, potato salad, and juice. The other side dishes vary but rice is always included. On separate occasions, I have served chili and spaghetti to guests and been asked if there was any rice (I had not made any). When eating out, I have been served a side of rice with my spaghetti so I suppose I should have known.

Since so much rice is eaten, a lot is grown. People in rice growing areas sell huge bags on the side of the road so you do not have travel to a market to make a purchase, just pull over for a few moments.

Rice for sale along the side of the road - prices in US dollars



The weather and soil conditions northeast of Guayaquil are ideal for growing rice. When driving between the mountain city of Cuenca and the coastal city of Puerto Lopez, we pass through a beautiful stretch of rice country.

The shaded area is the portion of rice country that we see

The dry season (June-December) is peak rice production time. A system of aqueducts is used to deliver water to and control water levels in fields. Cattle will walk through aqueducts even when water levels are higher than their legs are long.

Steer walking through an aqueduct

Once each field is filled with just the correct level of water, the soil is prepared then rice planted.

Plowing a rice field

Fields next to each other are planted at different times to allow for varying harvest times. This system is called stepped rice and the result for the casual viewer is a landscape rich in various levels of growth.

Stepped rice fields (easier to see the individual fields if you click on the photo to enlarge)

Driving through on a cloudy day, the fields are mood brighteners. Next to a bright green mid-growth field is a newly planted field, full of green sprouts. Everything looks so peaceful and tranquil.

Newly planted field in front of mid-growth field

Inside the fields, a predator lurks, unseen by travelers. In 2005, apple snail damage was first detected in Ecuadorian rice fields, threatening the rice ecosystem. Apple snails are the size of - you guessed it - apples and do major damage as they eat rice stalks. They have a natural predator in the area, the snail kite bird.

Male Snail Kite, 36 to 48 cm (14 to 19 in) long
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Snail kites were a threatened species in 2005 when apple snails began their damage. With the arrival of natural food for them, the snail kite numbers increased rapidly. They did not increase fast enough, though, to eliminate the snails.

Rice production was taking a beating as the snails took over fields. Desperate farmers first poisoned the snails through the insecticide endosulfan but soon discovered that also killed their ally, the snail kite bird. Millions were spent in search of a better solution. In 2011, the government banned endosulfan and recommended the molluscicide, methaldehyde instead.

The snail kite population is doing better and apple snail populations are down but still doing severe damage. The rice sector lost more than an estimated $56 million from apple snails in 2013 alone. It is an ongoing battle for farmers and scientists to find the best long term solution.

If you drive through, you are not likely to see the apple snail but will see the snail kite bird as well as many egrets.

Egrets and snail kite birds in rice fields
Most of the dark snail kite birds are on the far right side of the photo

Stilted homes are built on berms between fields, protecting them from floods.

Stilted home in rice fields
See the bamboo bridge on the right side of the photo? It is the walkway to the house

It is a beautiful drive made interesting by understanding a little of what is happening on the surface of the fields. While passing through, I watch for snail kite birds and root them on as they work on apple snail population control. I admire the farmers, who as the folk song says, can't even stand still and can't even sit down.

Farmer working in a rice field

Do you battle predators in your gardens or fields?

5 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thank you so much Lisa! Your comment just made my day :)

      Delete
  2. Hi Emily - pests and predators .. they all have attributes to life. Interesting I read the "snake" kite bird first ... then I realised what you were saying. oh I see the apple snails are wetland snails ...

    Do you know how Ecuadorians came to harvest rice ... and is it grown in steps as well as in these fields ... and how old are the aqueduct systems 'feeding the steps with water?',

    Fascinating and it must be wonderful to drive through ... I love the learning you're giving us ... cheers Hilary

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What I never added was the fact that I'm pleased they're trying to let nature do its thing and eliminate pesticides.

      My next door neighbours at the flats I'm in asked about a disease on their balcony plants - some being geraniums, which I thought would have been hardy - but my suggestion turned out to be right - my gardening knowledge is very limited (believe it or not!) ... and it was glass-house spider ... ie the conditions on the balcony aren't terribly healthy - little air - and which is moist from the English Channel metres away ...

      Rabbits and deer - are pests and I could name lots of other plants deciding to grow in places that become weeds!!

      Cheers Hilary

      Delete
    2. Hi Hilary, Your comments and questions are always wonderful. How funny that you read it as "snake" kite bird first. I should see what kinds of snakes might inhabit rice fields, too.

      I am not sure when rice first came to Ecuador but in the 1920s, a fungal disease nearly wiped out huge plantations of cocoa. Global low prices during the Great Depression discouraged owners from replanting. The plantations were divided up into rice, bananas, sugar and corn. These days, on our drive, we see large sugar and banana fields as well as the rice fields. Many of the farms have small corn fields, too.

      I have read about stepped rice systems on hills in other parts of Ecuador but I have not seen those yet. While researching, I tried to find out more about the aqueduct system but could only find recent projects, nothing about the history or when they were first implemented. I suspect some go back to the 1920s, when rice replaced some of the cocoa.

      Well done on the geranium diagnosis! We planted some in California and they did seem hardy but thankfully ours did not get the glass-house spider.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments,
      Emily

      Delete