FERRISBURGH — Last Wednesday morning, some 100 students and adults wearing traditional cone-shaped hats stood ankle-deep in a flooded rice paddy pushing delicate yellow sprouts into the clay soil.
No, this wasn’t a tableau from Southeast Asia — it was right here in Addison County at Ferrisburgh’s Boundbrook Farm.
While not a typical New England planting scene, Boundbrook Farm is not a typical Vermont farm. Erik Andrus and his wife, Erica, run the 110-acre diversified farm, and they also bake and distribute bread under the name Good Companion Bakery.
On Wednesday, Erik Andrus and the freshman class at Vergennes Union High School were working on a rice-growing endeavor that Andrus hopes will offer a new option for farmers looking to expand sustainable agricultural systems in the Northeast.
The students were at the farm for a community service project, offering their labor in exchange for Good Companion’s promise to donate bread to community food shelves. Each fall and spring, students participate in walkathons and service projects around town — but most projects don’t end with students covered head to toe in mud.
And despite some mud throwing and the distraction of bread and honey offered by the farm as snacks, Andrus said the group was able to plant 20,000 seedlings in just over an hour.
Ashley Mulliss, one of the ninth-graders participating in the project, was all smiles.
“I think a lot of kids enjoy being out here in the mud,” she said.
Andrus began the rice experiment on a very small scale last year in an attempt to put the land to use in innovative ways — but not necessarily new ones.
“Mostly it comes from having a wet farm, with a lot of marginal land that can’t even be hayed,” said Andrus. “We’re trying to find a way to derive more income and productivity from the land.”
Once the seedlings have taken root in the paddy, he will release ducks that will live among the plants, eating the weeds and fertilizing the water, eliminating the need for manual labor and herbicide. Andrus said the ducks don’t eat the rice because of its taste.
Grown properly, he said, rice plants can add an extra level of water filtration to a wetland. They soak up nitrogen and phosphorous that might otherwise flow into lakes and rivers, using those nutrients as fertilizers.
Farmers in the north of Japan, where the climate is similar to that of the northeastern United States, have been growing rice in wetlands for thousands of years. Andrus said the idea was planted during his time living in Miyagi prefecture in Japan.
“Traditional technologies are kind of my thing,” said Andrus, who mills flour for bread with power derived from his draft horses and is working to develop a small-scale, low-cost wind turbine.
Others in the region have begun growing rice on a small scale over the past three to four years, including Takeshi and Linda Akaoki of Westminster West. The Vermont couple pioneered the use of traditional Japanese rice-growing practices in the Northeast.
“(The technique) is new to New Englanders, but all we have to do is borrow it,” said Andrus.
Still there are unknowns. According to Heather Darby, an agronomist at the University of Vermont Extension, Andrus is embarking on the first commercial-scale rice-growing operation in the region. After a few hundred linear feet of rice last year, he is expanding production to one acre this year, and plans to grow five acres next year.
“Most rice production that’s currently going on in the state is on a small scale,” said Darby. “There hasn’t been a lot of work done on pest management or fertility.”
Darby said she hopes to work with Andrus as he expands the scale of the operation to do research that will help other farmers to add rice to their mix of crops.
“There’s an increasing demand for information on diversified crop production,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of new crops, and a lot of old crops being revived.”
Andrus expects one acre to produce about 4,000 pounds of rice.
“It’s an incredibly productive crop,” he said. “It’s as good as corn, but the cash value is much higher.”
And although there is an American rice industry, Andrus said the shifting food market in Vermont has created a great demand for rice that’s locally grown. In fact, he’s already sold his entire expected harvest — half to a grain co-op in Massachusetts and half to City Market Co-op in Burlington.
Andrus said rice production isn’t an easy endeavor. It requires a lot of planning and the creation of a rice paddy.
“You can’t just wake up one April and decide you’re going to plant rice and not corn,” he said.
But in the long term, Andrus hopes the crop will prove to be feasible for himself and farmers in the region, both economically and environmentally.
“The majority of the farmland in Addison County was wetlands that were adapted to European agriculture,” he said.
This eliminated habitats for amphibians and birds and destroyed the natural groundwater filtration systems, allowing agricultural runoff to flow into Lake Champlain and surrounding waterways.
“This project addresses the need to reinvent agriculture in a way that’s less detrimental to the environment,” said Andrus.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]