Farmer finds good crop for county’s clay soils — rice
FERRISBURGH — Boundbrook Farms and Good Companion Bakery owner Erik Andrus didn’t see himself as a commercial rice grower a decade ago when he set up shop on a 110-acre Ferrisburgh farm that lies a mile or so east of Vergennes.
In addition to founding what is now a successful bakery, Andrus was convinced he wanted to establish a new small-farm niche. What he had in mind was wheat for his baking and maybe barley for Vermont’s microbrewers, not rice.
“When I came to Ferrisburgh I knew I wanted to grow grains, because I felt grains were the most overlooked component of the small-scale agricultural revival that’s happening in the state,” he said.
But after several years of mixed results with wheat crops, Andrus realized he had to move in a different direction.
“The weather and the nature of the soil in the county really didn’t cooperate with that idea,” he said.
It was about that same time, in 2010, Andrus came across the work of Westminster West couple Takeshi and Linda Akaoki on how to grow rice in Vermont. He described reading a report of theirs he compared to a “how-to manual of how to grow rice” in cooler climates.
Andrus also recalled the time he spent in Japan a decade before.
“Fifteen years ago I lived in Japan, and I knew that rice could be grown in the temperate zone, including places that are colder than Vermont,” Andrus said. “Once I heard about the Akaokis I knew it could be done. It was just a matter of solving the various technical problems.”
He leveled some land and established his first small paddy in 2010, and then in 2011 enlisted a number of Vergennes Union High School students looking to fulfill community service requirements and planted about an acre of rice in two paddies.
In 2012 Andrus expanded to seven paddies — all must be within two inches of perfectly level, surrounded with earth berms, and served by pumps and drains to control their water levels — on about 5 acres. The resulting rice harvest, which sold for about $5 a pound, convinced him the project could be viable.
“2012 was a pretty successful year. We had about 3,000 pounds,” he said. “We sold it all right away, and we had pretty strong feedback from the customers who just found the texture and the flavor of the rice is like nothing else around.”
REFINING THE PROCESS
In the next couple of years, Andrus scaled back his acreage and experimented with different varieties of rice. He also spread his focus in 2013 by taking a sail barge trip down to a New York City farmers’ market.
Andrus also began experimenting with a key element of his all-natural approach to growing rice — using ducklings as weeders. The ducks eliminate the need for manual labor and herbicides, and their movement muddies the water and makes it easier for the rice plants to access the nutrients in the soil, he said.
“It turned out just managing the use of these ducks for effective weed control, getting that right, was really the missing piece,” he said.
Ducks don’t like rice, but eat the weeds that typically infest rice paddies. But Andrus can’t simply release a flock of ducks on his paddies and forget about them. Water levels must be managed for their health, and the ducks must be introduced at the age of seven-to-10 days old (after a few weeks of incubation in an outbuilding) at the same time rice seedlings are mechanically planted in May.
That means the eggs from his flock — he hopes to release 400 ducklings next spring — are also incubated to hatch at the right time.
For the most part, Andrus said, timing and flock management went well this summer, and thus when he fired up his combine last week the harvest was a success.
“This year, throughout the majority of what we planted, we got it right and we got really effective weed control by using the ducks correctly,” he said. “That’s a big deal for us. In the areas we managed the ducks correctly, we got really healthy rice and yields at par with global averages, and we didn’t use any fertilizers or any pesticides.”
In fact, although Andrus only planted about 1.3 acres this summer, he said the yield approached that of 2012’s 3,000 pounds.
“I got a better return for effort than any previous year,” he said.
There remain issues and anxiety. There is no extension service to back Andrus up or “old-timer next door who can look over your shoulder” and offer advice if everything doesn’t go according to plan.
“I won’t even bother with the litany of things that have gone wrong. But to get an acceptable crop off you have to get most of it right every year,” Andrus said, adding, “We know more about this stuff than any of our neighbors or extension, so we figure it out as we go. And that’s kind of fun and exciting sometimes, but it’s also really precarious, because if anything goes wrong it’s hard to get answers.”
Still, now that he has ironed out most of the kinks, over the next two years Andrus plans to expand into the 5.5 acres he planted in 2012. And there is more land available in the lower portion of his acreage. He said he and his wife, Erica, used to joke about planting rice because the area’s clay soils are actually ideal for holding water.
“Many times the land we wanted to plant cereals on or even put hay on, we would look out on and see these huge rainstorms leaving a foot of water,” he said.
Andrus believes those soils, prevalent in much of the Champlain Valley, mean that rice could become a staple crop in the Northeast, even though he is now the largest grower in the area.
“I hope that will take root in our region,” he said. “The amount of land that we have that could grow rice is huge.”
Certainly, Andrus believes there is a market for the product. He said he turned down an offer for his entire crop from a restaurant supplier a couple of years back, and this year most of his rice will go to customers who pre-ordered it at farmers’ markets.
Distributor Pete’s Greens will buy most of the rest, Andrus said, and if any remains — some of which he will mill into brown rice and some of which he will mill into white rice — he will sell it at local farmers’ markets.
He described the rice as “slightly sticky. And when it’s brown it’s not quite as sticky. And it’s got a little bit of a nutty taste to it either way.”
It will be priced at about the same as specialty rice at grocery stores, he said.
“It’s inexpensive enough that you could have it for an everyday meal,” Andrus said.
He is confident consumer demand could accommodate many more growers.
“I have production problems, not as many as I did a year ago,” Andrus said. “But I do not have marketing problems.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
ERIK ANDRUS LOOKS out over the rice crop on his Boundbrook Farm in Ferrisburgh last week.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
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