The morning was clear and chilly — and so early a host of stars still glittered in the sky. The three hunters quietly began placing decoys about the spread, rising adrenaline levels providing insulation against the cold. As they finished and settled beneath camouflage cover, the eastern horizon changed from purple … to red … and then to pink.

The noise started faintly but soon became deafening, the cries of a thousand geese rose from their nighttime roost ponds in search of food. As the sky brightened, the outline of a rice combine and auger cart parked in the next field became visible to the hunters. Then came the geese — snows and specs and blues — in great columns, to feed on rice the farmer had left behind.

This is a common scene played out hundreds of times during the winter throughout the Rice Belt, which comprises 18 counties in the Upper Gulf Coast region of Texas. Located in the heart of the central flyway for migratory birds, Texas rice farms play a vital role in maintaining winter feeding grounds for migratory birds that flock to escape Canada's harsh winters.

Yet, providing wildlife habitats and enhancing water quality may be considered a lagniappe, or an extra benefit, to the state's economy, since the rice industry itself contributes nearly $1 billion every year. Roughly half, or $500 million, is directly related to the value of the rice crop, including the farm-gate price and processing and distribution revenues. Much of the economic infrastructure of the rural Upper Gulf Coast depends on rice production.

The other half can be attributed to the revenue from such outdoor activities as bird-watching and hunting. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, revenue from wildlife-watching in Texas tops $1.2 billion annually. Since roughly half of these enthusiasts are in pursuit of migratory birds and waterfowl, a good portion of that $1.2 billion is spent along the Gulf Coast.

This is not surprising because Texas has nearly 650 different bird species, according to the Texas Ornithological Society, and more than half of those can be found in the Texas Rice Belt. In the annual Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Matagorda County's Mad Island Marsh ranked in first place for the sixth year in a row. Last Christmas, 243 species were identified, making the county home to the most diverse population of bird species in the nation. Not by coincidence, Matagorda County is also one of Texas' top rice-producing counties, with more than 18,000 acres in 2003.

How do rice farmers preserve and enhance the environment while ensuring their crop will bring in a profit?

A major contributor is the farmers' use of the Integrated Pest Management system supported by Texas A&M University scientists and Texas Cooperative Extension agents. This method of pest control focuses on long-term prevention and damage control through a combination of techniques that rely on diligent crop monitoring. These include biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates a need, and they are applied in ways that minimize risks to health and the environment.

In Jefferson County, the rice IPM program is coordinated and implemented by Extension agent Kelby Boldt, with input and training from Texas Agricultural Experiment Station scientists who specialize in rice research. According to Boldt, adequate training for the program's field scouts is critical to its success.

“To try and keep the costs down for the farmers, we often rely on college students to fill the scout position,” Boldt said. “That means they may come to us with very little knowledge of rice production practices, so we have to invest several weeks at the beginning of the year to train them properly.”

This involves time spent with the scientists at the Research Station, learning about rice physiology and morphology, soil and plant nutrition, pathology, and weed and insect control.

“By the time they complete their training at the center and we begin to walk the fields together, these guys are very knowledgeable in rice production,” Boldt said.

Jefferson County rice farmer Herbert Clubb has participated in the program since it began in 1998 and is quite satisfied with the results.

“I am a third-generation rice farmer in my 59th year of rice production,” he said, “so I know the importance of keeping a close watch on my fields. At my age, though, the problem is actually getting out there to cover 300 acres of flooded rice fields. When all the tallies are in, I think the benefits of the program are well worth the cost.”

Clubb has enrolled all of his acreage in the program, but Boldt says many farmers enroll only a small portion of their land and use the scouting reports as an indicator of what to look for in their other fields.

To document the impact and savings associated with the pest control program, Dr. Mo Way, entomologist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Beaumont, has conducted three years of testing that compares IPM and conventional rice production techniques. According to Way's research, the program's plots consistently showed a higher economic return — $20 to $50 more per acre — than the plots that followed a conventional spray program.

Protecting water quality is especially critical in rice production. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, freshwater inflow is one of the most important factors affecting the health and productivity of the bay system. Here, freshwater from the land combines with salt water from the Gulf of Mexico, producing brackish water that is the key to estuarine productivity.

But as greater demand from industry and residential areas decreases freshwater reaching the bays, high saline conditions threaten habitats that support a multitude of species, including redfish, speckled trout and flounder that fuel the state's recreational fishing industry.

To help alleviate this problem, rice farmers release thousands of acre-feet of floodwater in preparation for harvesting their first crop. This inflow of freshwater comes in mid-August when demand is highest, making up for the water tied up in municipal use.

And, according to a study conducted by Experiment Station scientist Dr. Garry McCauley, the water that leaves a rice field is often cleaner than the water that comes in. McCauley looked at 50 rice fields over a two-year period, measuring the major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in water coming into the field and water leaving the field just prior to harvest.

In all cases where the water was “held” for the proper time, McCauley found nutrient content was less when the water flowed out than when it flowed in.

“There is no economic incentive for farmers to apply fertilizer then let it escape the field,” he said. “It just doesn't make sense. They want to get the most for every dollar they invest in the crop.”

McCauley also found that water released from the first crop had lower amounts of sediment than water entering the field. And because of the natural biological activity that occurs in rice fields, oxygen levels were higher in water leaving the fields, which is also important for the continued health of bay and estuary systems.

“What it comes down to is that our research has shown that IPM methods for rice farming do work,” McCauley said. “The fields where farmers use IPM practices are vibrant wildlife habitats, and the water released from these fields enhances the streams, marshes, bays and estuaries.”