Deborah Moskowitz & Chance Cutrano

California (Operating nationally)

Project Overview

Fish in the Fields is working to address a triple threat of issues—climate change, biodiversity loss, and industrial food systems—through a unique pathway: rice and fish. To reduce methane emissions from rice production, their pilot program introduces fish to fallow rice fields in the winter. This innovative approach also creates an additional revenue stream for rural farmers—the sale of fish for feed—while reducing the demand on fish from our oceans.

Five Questions

1What needs does Fish in the Fields address and how?

Fish in the Fields is a nature-based approach to tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss across America’s agricultural lands. The simple addition of small fish to winter flooded rice fields begins a process that yields multiple benefits for people and the planet: 1) fosters resilience for two essential foods–rice and fish; 2) retains and restores migratory bird corridors and wildlife habitat; 3) harnesses natural systems that dramatically reduce climate-changing methane emissions from rice cultivation; and 4) adds a second annual revenue stream (aquaculture) and builds the social and economic sustainability of rural communities.​​

2Tell us about a moment that helped inspire your idea.

The inspiration for Fish in the Fields grew out of our earlier program—the Nigiri Project—that pioneered the use of California's vast winter flooded rice fields to recover threatened native salmon populations. We discovered that juvenile wild salmon are better equipped to survive their migration to the ocean after fattening up for a few months in winter rice fields. After demonstrating its success, we turned over the wildly popular program to CalTrout, a sister NGO.
But the Nigiri Project got us thinking. Traditional cultures have raised fish and rice in the same flooded fields for millennia. Could those heritage practices be adapted to commercial U.S. rice production and provide a financial incentive for rice growers to adopt conservation practices? The answer is yes!

3What is the biggest challenge you face right now?

In 2022, in the largest and most ambitious project of its kind ever undertaken in the United States, Resource Renewal Institute (RRI) and its Arkansas partners launched a 3-year, 140-acre controlled study alternating rice agriculture and aquaculture on the same farmland. We are entering the second phase of our research, building on lessons learned in Year 1. We are currently working with our farm partners to refine the field design, water management and fish growing operations. At the same time, we are collaborating with a team of scientists to strengthen our research protocols. Our challenge for Year Two is to increase our understanding of how rice fields support fish growth and to measure the impact of fish on methane emissions—all with the goal of a compelling, scalable FIF pilot for American rice growers.

4What other leaders have informed your work?

To begin with, we honor the leadership of RRI’s late founder and environmental pioneer, Huey D. Johnson, who innovated the use of California rice fields to support fish growth and resource conservation with the founding of both the Nigiri and Fish in the Fields projects. And it was one of our funders, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder and RRI board member, who encouraged us to look more deeply into the serious problem of methane pollution associated with rice cultivation.

A major strength of Fish in the Fields today is the ongoing contribution of its partners and advisors, each of whom bring a unique knowledge and perspective to this expansive and complex project. They include sustainable rice and fish growers, rice agriculture and methane fluxes research scientists, USDA specialists in conservation practice standards, aquaculturists, rice trade association leaders, freshwater ecologists and fish biologists.

5Describe a participant, client, community member, or someone else who represents what your project is all about.

Mark Isbell, a fifth-generation Arkansas rice grower, embraces innovative, climate-smart rice-growing practices with energy and enthusiasm. He and his family, who own and operate Zero Grade Farms, have received a host of awards for sustainability, water and energy conservation and land stewardship. In 2022, Mark generously invited us to take over 140 acres of their land for three years to conduct Fish in the Fields research, demonstrations and outreach activities. Mark also introduced us to leading University of Arkansas climate emissions research scientist, Dr. Ben Runkle, who was already performing research on the same land and agreed to share the use of his team’s measurement equipment and relevant research.

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