By Steve Gillespie / Managing Editor
The Meridian Star
We don't usually think a lot about rice farming here in Meridian, but Mississippi is one of the six major U.S. rice producing states, which also includes Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas.
According to the U.S. Rice Industry the U.S. produces about 20 billion pounds of rice a year, and while that represents less than 2 percent of the rice grown in the world, it supplies about half of the domestic market.
At the same time, the U.S. is among the top five countries that export rice. We're sending it to Mexico, Haiti, Japan, Canada, Turkey, Libya, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia.
Rice fields also are home to all kinds of wildlife that rely on wetlands, so rice farmers and hunters have always worked pretty good together. Things have gotten tricky, however. But help is on the way.
On Wednesday Mississippi's U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, both Republicans, along with Arkansas U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor, Democrat, and John Boozman, Republican, introduced legislation to protect farmers and hunters from ideas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has about rice fields and baiting.
Go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement section on the website www.fws.gov, and you'll find this information under the header Waterfowl Hunting on Agricultural Lands:
Agricultural lands offer prime waterfowl hunting opportunities. You can hunt waterfowl in fields of unharvested standing crops. You can also hunt over standing crops that have been flooded. You can flood fields after crops are harvested and use these areas for waterfowl hunting.
The presence of seed or grain in an agricultural area rules out waterfowl hunting unless the seed or grain is scattered solely as the result of a normal agricultural planting, normal agricultural harvesting, normal agricultural post-harvest manipulation, or normal soil stabilization practice.
These activities must be conducted in accordance with recommendations of the State Extension Specialists of the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Cooperative Extension Service).
That seems clear enough, except the FWS has decided that rice fields that have sprung a secondary crop after harvest — even unintentionally — will be considered baited fields if the stubble left in those fields has been rolled, as farmers are advised to do by extension service folks.
Inadvertent baiting of a field can bring a fine of up to $15,000 or prohibit hunting on the land according to Cochran's office.
The Farmer Protection Act of 2012 these senators have introduced would allow each cooperative extension service to distinguish between normal agricultural practices and baiting.
“Many Mississippi landowners traditionally lease farmland to sportsmen after the land has been harvested, but some of these leases have had to be returned because of Fish and Wildlife Service requirements, costing farmers and sportsmen,” Wicker was quoted as saying in the news release issued Wednesday. “Under this bill, states would define normal agricultural practices, ensuring local farming methods can continue as they have for generations. Rice, soybean, and other producers should be able to manage their fields without the threat of losing valuable hunting rights.”
Steve Gillespie is managing editor of
The Meridian Star. E-mail him at