Farming for birds at River Garden Farms

The Yolo County farm finds innovative ways to benefit wildlife on its property

Planting habitat on the River Gardens Farm. Photo: Matthew Danielczyk

It’s certainly not unusual to walk onto a farm and see a bunch of young people working the soil. However, it is unusual when the young people aren’t actually farmers, and they’re not planting things that are, technically, crops.

But that’s what you would have seen a few months back on River Garden Farms in Knight’s Landing in Yolo County. The young people in this instance were students from Woodland High School, and they were planting native oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods and box elder trees along an unused riverside corridor through the property. Audubon California and the Center for Land-based Learning teamed up on the project to build conservation skills among the students while providing habitat corridor across the farm.

The project grew out of conversations that Audubon California’s Khara Strum began several years ago with Roger Cornwell, the farm manager of River Garden Farms. As a conservation project manager, she knew that the family-owned farm had been doing conservation work on their 15,000-acre farm for some time.

“These were farmers that understood that we need to take care of the environment if we want the environment to take care of us,” Strum says.

Those early conversations eventually led Audubon California, to consider River Garden Farms as a potential site for the project with Audubon California and the Center for Land-based Learning. The project came together with additional support from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. Based on the success of the first year, the two groups are now looking for funding to start a next phase of the project would revegetate the historic Sycamore Slough and improve the water quality, provide habitat for fish and other wildlife and of course, birds.

Prepping the planting at River Garden Farms. Photo: Matthew Danielczyk

This project is just the latest conservation activities on the farm. Like the majority of rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley, River Garden Farms floods its rice fields to speed up the breakdown of rice stubble after harvest. This flooding also provides habitat for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. To make even more of that process, River Garden Farms participates in The Nature Conservancy’s Bird Returns program, in which farmers get funding to flood their fields for habitat.

River Garden Farms makes even better use of this water through a partnership with Cal Trout and UC Davis to grow plankton and tiny bugs in the flooded fields, which they then release into the Sacramento River to feed young fishes. Fish have not had access to this food source, which historically developed in floodplains, for decades, since we tamed our rivers with levees to protect human communities from flooding. If rice farms can replicate floodplain habitat, and release the water into a stream or river, fish biologists hope to see a reverse in the decline of fish species listed as threatened and endangered.

River Garden Farms is weaving a lot of conservation into everything they do, continually innovating to find additional conservation value on the farm.

River Garden Farms also procured root wads from an old almond orchard nearby that was removing its older trees and anchored them in the Sacramento River bottom near Redding to provide places for young fish to rest and feed. They partnered on this project with U.S Bureau of Reclamation, Northern California Water Association, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Western Shasta Resource Conservation District.

They also work with California Waterfowl Association’s Egg Salvage and Duck Rescue program to retrieve and remove duck eggs before they would be destroyed by harvesting machines in wheat fields, then incubate and hatch them, and raise the ducklings for release back into the creeks.

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