Freedom High students grow rice as science experiment
By Rowena Coetsee
Contra Costa Times
OAKLEY -- Dozens of Freedom High School students have embarked on an outdoors research project to see whether an uncommon crop in this region can solve some of the problems facing the Delta.
With help from a $27,000 federal grant, Oakley's Delta Science Center is having a group of teens from the school grow rice on Jersey Island over the next three years while monitoring its effect on the environment.
Although most of the 57 islands in the Delta have farmland, most of the crops are fruits, vegetables and grains other than rice, said Roni Gehlke, executive director of the educational nonprofit.
The so-called Rice Culture Mitigation Project, which the center eventually might broaden to include Liberty and Heritage and other East County high schools as well, is to explore the pros and cons of cultivating this alternative food.
"It's a real-life experiment," Gehlke said.
After signing up three months ago, students will participate in different aspects of the project based on their academic interests.
Economics students will review data that a University of California at Davis professor collected during an actual study of the costs involved in switching from corn to rice, and then determine whether the change is economically feasible.
Those more interested in science will take water, soil and air samples; agriculture students will cultivate the plants.
Others will chronicle the activities on video, which could be used to show other schools what the undertaking involves.
In early April, teens began working on a 34-by-15 plot by fashioning six greenhouses from plastic sheeting and PVC pipes to protect the rice seedlings from wind and birds.
They also dug ditches around each structure and filled them with water to keep the soil soaked until they transplant the seedlings into two small fields sometime in the next few weeks.
Students will test carbon levels in the air to determine whether the crop is reducing the concentration of this toxic greenhouse gas, comparing the samples they took earlier this month with ones they'll collect after transplanting the rice and again once they harvest it this fall.
East County's searing summer heat dries out the area's peat soil, and its exposure to air creates carbon dioxide.
But a crop that requires 3 to 4 inches of standing water will prevent that chemical reaction and that, Gehlke says, would represent a very small step toward meeting California's federal mandate to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent over the next six years.
What's more, rice paddies would prevent the peat from igniting and smoldering underground in a hard-to-extinguish fire.
They'll also prevent it from blowing away, which would benefit Delta levees that can spring a leak as erosion gradually takes its toll, Gehlke said.
She recently took a group of students to the top of Jersey Island's levee so they could see the effects firsthand; from that vantage point they could see the marked difference between the length of the outside slope to the river and that of the inside slope, which has been worn away until it now measures well over 10 feet.
But there are potential drawbacks to growing rice as well. The crop, whose waterlogged environment produces methane naturally, could increase the levels of that greenhouse gas as well as phosphates and nitrates.
And, although adding a nitrogen fertilizer to the soil would invigorate the rice's growth -- and generate more profit for a farmer -- the area could end up with dangerous levels of pollutants if too much is applied, Gehlke said.
The same principle applies to phosphates: Some is good for plants, too much is dangerous for other forms of life.
As such, students will be keeping an eye on their project as it grows, she said.
"We're just making sure that by bringing something new into this environment ... that we're not making any changes that might be harmful," Gehlke said.