Generations of Arkansas rice growers who farmed the flood plains near the Mississippi River had little reason to pay attention to water supplies or their impact on a changing climate. Dan Hooks is different.
Defying the common practice of constantly flooding fields—which creates methane and makes rice the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases among U.S. crops—Hooks experimented for three years with a low-water technique on 500 acres of rice. Turns out, when he allows the crop to dry out before irrigating again, he’s cut water usage in half and saved money without hurting yield.
“If farmers weren’t willing to change, we’d still be using mules,” Hooks said by telephone from Slovak, Arkansas, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of the Mississippi, the biggest U.S. river and a water source for millions of people. “I’m happy to be a guinea pig.”
While fossil fuels like oil and coal get most of the blame for climate change and pollution, agriculture also contributes to the problem. American farmers—the world’s biggest grain producers—are responsible for 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, and rice has three times as much per acre as corn and five times that of wheat, according to a University of California-Davis study in 2012.
The technique used by Hooks, called Alternate Wetting Drying, reduces methane emissions, as well as water and fertilizer use. The concept was developed three decades ago in Africa and popularized in Asia during the 1990s. It’s now being employed in the U.S. on 35,000 acres, from southeast Missouri to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, by farmers calling themselves Nature’s Stewards. The group thinks changing the way rice is cultivated could mean a more carbon-friendly future for the Mississippi Delta, the biggest growing region.