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Saving Duck Eggs, Saving the Land

Nancy Mullane

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Wild duck nest
(Nancy Mullane)
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Rice is in the headlines lately. It's a staple in the diet of more than half the world's population -- now cyclones and droughts have hit some of the larger rice-producing countries, limiting stocks and raising the price.

But drought and rice production are also on the minds of people closer to home. In California, rice farmers are in the midst of planting their annual crop. But for one family farm in the Sacramento River Valley, before they can plant their rice, they have wild ducks and their eggs to deal with.

If you've every bought a bag of organic rice, odds are it came from one of the fields on the Lundberg Family Farm. It's the nation's largest producer of organic rice. This time of year, many of their fields are bright purple, thanks to a colorful cover-crop called vetch. It helps enrich the soil and also serves as a perfect nesting ground for wild ducks migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

That's just the sort of symbiotic relationship you'd expect on an organic farm. But this one has a hitch: Bryce Lundberg and his family have to plow up their fields before they can plant this year's rice crop, and the duck eggs haven't hatched yet.

"When the tractor goes through the field," Lundberg says, "it will chew up or destroy any eggs still in the field."

Most farmers just plow the fields, eggs and all. The Lundbergs have a different approach: Each year they invite dozens of volunteers to scour their fields over a few weekends in May to collect the wild eggs. Over the past 15 years, they've brought more than 30,000 eggs to the local wild bird hatchery.

This year, because of the drought, the vetch is shorter, so there are only a few eggs to save -- not enough to need volunteers. Still, the Lundberg family thinks each duck egg counts. So they're salvaging the eggs on their own.

The technique is simple: While one employee drives a tractor, Bryce and his 18-year-old son ride out front on four-wheel ATV's. The idea is to flush out the mother ducks sitting on the nests and collect the eggs before the tractor blades gets there.

As they drive through the fields, a mother duck flies out of the grasses. The three men stop their vehicles and begin searching for the nest. With their eyes down, they push the thick grasses aside, searching for duck eggs.

After 15 minutes of searching, longtime employee Tim Casaulong calls to the others. He has found the nest. Slowly, he picks up three light-blue duck eggs and gently places them in a cardboard egg carton.

Looking down at the eggs, Casaulong -- a big man who drives an even bigger tractor -- shows his soft side:

"Inside that egg, it starts with a little tiny heart and little tiny veins going to the inner lining of the egg. That's the embryo, and it just grows and grows and eventually it turns into a little duck in there... And it's amazing. It's life. It's amazing how it happens."

The Lundberg family has been farming for four generations. The local cafe in their small town of Richvale serves as a mini-museum of their evolution. Back in the 1930s, Albert Lundberg was farming wheat and corn in Nebraska. But eradicating the wild grasses and then over-farming the land led to deep erosion that helped contribute to the Dust Bowl crisis.

Homer Lundberg says his father sold what was left of his farm in Nebraska and moved to California's Sacramento River Valley with his wife and four sons, with an eye to sustaining the land. "He said 'We're going to leave this ground better than we found it. It's not going to be mining the soil, it's going to be building it up and improving it.'"

Albert Lundberg started by rotating crops -- he let the fields go fallow every other year to replenish the soil's nutrients, and used cover crops in the off season. "I guess he was an ecologist before people were even using the word, and we got that spirit," Homer Lundberg says.

Homer's older brother Harlan says he thinks the way his family is farming is the best way to farm. "I don't think what the ordinary farmer is doing can be long-term, because pretty soon the ground won't produce anymore. It'll just be poison."

Harlan Lundberg says it's all about protecting the best land for farming. "We've got to stop paving over our food-producing land. We just got to. Talk about short-sighted. If you want sustainability, you protect the land that grows our food -- end of sermon."


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Jermaine Barksdale


    Merely on the internet checking things out ... adore the photos! I try to know by considering other images, also. Feel free to surf to my blog: [url=http://www.bigcotton.com]big cotton[/url]

    By Greg Murphy

    From Boston, MA, 05/26/2008

    I've been eating Lundberg Organic Short Grain Brown Rice for over 30 years! When organic food was but a fringe concept these people were doing it right!

    By Kathy Lorenzato


    Thank you for this heart-warming story. I enjoy shopping at the Davis Food Co-op where I can find many different kinds of organic Lundberg rice (they have particularly nice combinations during the Christmas season). This story made me proud of our organic farmers in Northern California, and happy that I can help to sustain them economically in my choice of groceries.

    By Valerie Jhaveri


    Regarding the paving over of our farmland, what has happened over the last 40 or so years just south of Seattle, from South Park to down past Kent, is an outrage. We moved here because of the proximity of local vegetable farms and dairies. We now see miles of warehouses and two huge malls. Our food is being trucked or flown in from who knows where. YES! Something has got to be done to save our farmlands and our small family farms! Some years ago King County tried a so-called Green Belt - to no avail - and the asphalt just keeps spreading. Sometimes I wonder if a national policy for food source preservation should be implemented. I know that that smacks of "federalism", but "something's gotta give."

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