Organic rice farming vs. urban sprawl: A case study from East Houston
The practice of organic farming has experienced some backlash due to the complaints of one neighborhood located in a rice field.
Thursday, September 30, 2010 - 14:31
ORGANIC RICE FIELD: Having your organic rice and eating it, too. (Photo: Sean Deskin)
Rice farming is a common practice along the Gulf Coast and a trip through this area is likely to reveal vistas of these fields. Depending on what time of year you travel, you may hap upon these fields flooded and studded with crawfish traps, drained and showing the first sprigs of plant life, or filled to the gills with crops and proudly waving their bounty in the wind — ah, agriculture, one my favorite byproducts of civilization! Yet you are also likely to see another byproduct of civilization (and one of my least favorite): suburbs sprawling off into the farmlands.
Here comes the neighborhood
I am not trying to sound the alarm against urban sprawl — no, I, actually, am totally for one living the suburban life if it accords with his or her needs, and with the way the city of Houston is growing, there definitely is a need for housing. But in many instances, this housing is being developed on land that was previously dedicated to agriculture.
If you aren't familiar with the geography of Houston, here's a quick description: flat, gulf coastal plains replete with bayous, rivers and ship channels and a downtown encircled by three major highways: the inner loop, a larger beltway encircling this loop (Beltway 8) and an even larger loop (99) being built around the already-existing beltway. This third loop being built is cutting through some of the smaller locales satelliting Houston that had once been dedicated to rice and soybean production and cattle ranching.
These days, it is not uncommon to see a lone sub-development plotted awkwardly in the middle of a field with nothing but open spaces for miles around (please reference the photo). If we compare this increasingly common image to another common image from our national stockpile of images and lore — the lone mounted cowpuncher in an open field against the big blue sky — an elegaic sentiment may grip the romantic and bitter their beans like a morning's first cup of black coffee. I know that a rice field is hardly something to romanticize, but hey, it can get awful lonely out there on the East side of Houston sometimes, and sometimes all a body's got is them there rice fields (and the thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes).
Here's the beef
In my town — Cove, Texas — a Houston outlier in 99's path, a local farmer decided to raise a crop of organic rice and it proved to be an economic success for him because a bushel of organic rice paid out two-and-a-half times more than the regular type of rice for his first harvest, and he is still expecting a second and maybe even a third crop for this year's growing season. But residents have been complaining that the organic growing procedures, which require the grower to abstain from the use of chemical pesticides among many other regulations for growing, are the source of an increase in mosquitoes.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but whenever there is a large, standing body of water (a rice field, for instance) with moderate to hot temperatures, there will be mosquitoes, both breeding and thriving, despite the amount of pesticides one chooses to use. If a grower cultivates organic produce, his or her fields are subject to random government inspections which can happen four times or more per crop, and if those fields test positive for pesticides, the grower cannot label the produce "organic" (and rightfully so).
A couple of weeks ago, the complaints made by various members of the community about mosquito problems prompted the pest-control man's plan to spray around one of the fields of organic rice. Had this work-order actually happened, it would have been bad news for the community. Luckily, though, because of the "interconnectedness" characteristic of many small towns, a lot of the townspeople had heard about the organic rice field and had even studied a bit into the process. The bug-sprayer en route called the owner of the field (a perfect example of interconnectedness) and told him that he was going to be spraying around the fields, to which the grower more or less replied, "Great, so the city will be buying my rice instead of the market." It turns out that if the crops were to have pesticides applied to them, then the party who adulterated the organic process by such means, i.e. the city, would be held legally accountable for the grower's restitution of his crops.
This whole fiasco presents our small town with the paradox of the cat that wants salmon yet won't get its feet wet: the suburban sprawl that is responsible for sweeping market trends (like the late interest in organic products) has planted suburban developments in the middle of organic crop fields whose residents complain that their lifestyle is suffering from the consequences of organic food production.
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