Several hundred ducks are paddling in a rice paddy on Erik Andrus' farm in Ferrisburg. If you're thinking that rice isn't typically grown in Addison County, you're right. But Andrus has found a way to make rice work here on Boundbrook Farm, and those ducklings play a part.
"Rice is a tropical plant and even though the varieties we grow are cold-tolerant, they don't grow as fast as they do in a tropical environment," Andrus explains to Vermont Edition. Not only do the plants grow slowly, but Andrus notes there is also large amounts of space between them.
"It's very wet and fertile and this condition where weeds can really flourish," Andrus continues. "And also, because it's flooded, it's very difficult to get in there with any type of equipment and pull the weeds or cultivate them in any way."
That's where ducks come in.
"The duck is a perfect fit for this problem because they can walk or swim between the plants and they eat the weeds and bugs that bother the rice crop, but they do not harm the rice plants," Andrus explains, adding that the ducks avoid the rice leaves because the silica in them bothers the ducks' bills. Once the rice plants have grain, the ducks will look to eat that and will need to be removed, but up until that point they can chip in on the work.
Andrus learned this method of using ducks to tend to his rice paddies by visiting farmers in Japan who've perfected the technique. He now has 400 ducks that he bought as hatchlings. The breed of duck is Khaki Campbell, which Andrus describes as a breed of skillful foragers.
The ducklings are 10 days old and it marks the first time they will paddle in water in the rice paddy – however this occasion doesn't come with the most elaborate celebration.
"We're going to take the ducklings from the brooder to the rice field in the tractor," Andrus says. "And this method puts the ducks in a great big jumble in a bin just for a few minutes for their ride to the field, and then they get unceremoniously dumped into the rice paddy."
"That's how the Japanese do it, so I know it works," Andrus continues with a laugh. "They'll sort themselves out in a matter of minutes and they'll be off and foraging for weeds and bugs and tadpoles and whatever else they can find out there."
Andrus lifts two dark blue plastic bins from the tractor, each carrying 60 ducklings. The ducklings hop and tumble out of the bins at the edge of the rice paddy. The ducks are swimming for the first time and one older mallard is with them, showing them how. But mostly they're just trying to get out of each other's way.
As the ducks move around, the water clouds which "helps keep weeds from germinating on the soil bed and makes more nutrients available for the growing rice plants," Andrus explains.
While rice is his crop, it's clear that Andrus cares about the ducks that help him grow the rice. He says it's his responsibility to keep the ducks healthy and feels a bond with them.
"I talk with my ducklings all the time," Andrus says. "I call to them and, even though they can get their own food, make a practice of calling them and feeding them a little bit of duck food every day so that they always come when I call." He demonstrates a call, a bellowing refrain of "Duck Duck Duck."
Andrus works to balance the health of the ducks with the productivity of the rice paddies.
"The duck is a creature that lives on the edge of water and land, so in order for it to really work, the water level in the field has to be quite low, lower than most rice farmers are comfortable with," Andrus says. "But if they're in deep water all the time, they are not big enough to temperature-regulate and they'll succumb to various diseases."
His farm now produces three to four tons of rice: three Japanese varieties and one Russian variety. Growing rice wasn’t his initial intention though, Andrus says. He envisioned his farm would grow dry-land crops, but some rainfall patterns had made things difficult for a couple of years.
"I lived in Japan, 16 or so years ago, and I saw commercial-scale rice being grown there, and when we saw water pooling in the fields like a foot deep, my wife and I would joke like, 'Oh, we ought to be growing rice,'" Andrus says. "And then in 2010, we heard about this couple in southern Vermont that had been doing experiments with Japanese cold-tolerant rice varieties and it started not to be a joke."
Andrus says looked at the research done by Takeshi and Linda Akaogi and he ultimately decided to give operating a rice farm a try. Books, trial-and-error and a trip to Japan to speak with other rice growers have all been helpful in his pursuit of running his farm, he says.
"The Champlain Valley was naturally a combination of wetlands and wet forest, so rice is a much better fit for what the valley wants to be in terms of natural history than corn or wheat," Andrus says. He likes to say that if the Champlain Valley had been colonized by people from Asia instead of Europeans, we'd already have several hundred years of rice growing tradition here.