More Crop per Drop: Rice and Water

Rice Water Footprint
One cup of cooked rice = 50 gallons of water
One pound of uncooked rice = 300 gallons of water


Lotus Rice Bhutan Red


The Natural Product Expo is the largest showcase of “green” edible and non-edible products assembled under one roof in the world. The expo was my baptism into the world of trade shows. I repeated my sales pitch for shower timers a minimum of 1000 times and listened to confessions of long showers. Small plots of floor space were carved out for each vendor. On breaks, I’d walk the orderly rows much like fields of corn. A camera crew filming at one of the booths slowed my pace. I was about to move around them until I overheard, “More crop per drop.” I stayed to listen.

Lotus Foods, co-president Ken Lee addressed the camera. His company imports organic rice from farmers in Asia  implementing a farm technique called System of Intensification (SRI) that reduces water usage by 40 percent.

Thirty percent of all freshwater draws of surface and ground water is spent on rice. The small grain provides one-fifth of the world’s caloric intake. To feed a growing population, rice yields must double by 2050 to feed 2.5 billion more people.

Two sizable barriers stand in the way of bigger yields, climate change, and water scarcity. The International Water Management Institute estimates with each 1°C (1.8°F) temperature increase, yields decline by 7 percent. Twenty-five percent of irrigated rice fields, supplying three-quarters of the world’s rice, will suffer water scarcity by 2025. Rice plants, conventionally grown in flooded fields, will need to adjust to a future with less available water for irrigation.

Ken Lee described a rice cultivation method that increased production, saved water and grew stronger plants more resistant to severe weather conditions like hurricanes and drought. Of the couple thousand booths at the trade show promising to “save the planet,” including my shower timer booth, Lotus Foods came the closest.

The U.S., one of the top rice-producing countries, is home to only three farms implementing SRI. A staff member with the SRI International Network and Resource Center located at Cornell University helped me locate Cajun Grain Farms, three hours from New Orleans in Kinder, Louisiana.


Kurt Unkle, the owner of Cajun Grain, charmed me with the quick cadence of his southern accent during our first telephone conversation. He launched into explaining tests done on his rice for the presence of heavy metals performed by a local university. Uncertain if Kurt was describing a different farming technique, I asked, “Does this farming method have a name?” I searched for my pen on my desk and opened my notebook ready to write down his answer. “Yeah, it got a name,” he said in a serious tone. “It’s called taking care of your land.”



Cajun Grain Farm

In August, I spent the day with Kurt on his rice farm. He taught me why SRI rice uses less water, tests low in heavy metals, and produces larger, more nutrient rich grain. The details of my trip will be published in an upcoming issue of McNeese Review.  I’ll sprinkle little bits of information here and there for you to chew on over the coming months and include some tasty rice based recipes.

In the meantime….

Eat less water at the kitchen table! There is power in the collective.

Be well,


Top Reasons Why Kids Need to be in the Kitchen


The lazy days of summer brought something unexpected; my children into the kitchen. I’m not referring to children whining about being hungry, once the scent of dinner lures them from their playing digs, but as, actual cooks. My kids, ages 7, 8 and 11, are in the kitchen every night—chopping, grating, mixing, stirring, and all the other verbs required in cooking a meal.

On a recent night, Isabella, the oldest, shredded some leftover roasted chicken. Joaquin, my 8-year-old, heated corn tortillas on the iron coma. Most impressive, my 7-year-old, Estrella, placed the shredded chicken onto the tortillas and rolled it into taut taquitos, whereby after being shown twice was able to stitch the tortilla closed with a toothpick.

In Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, he writes that the amount of time spent cooking each day for the average American fell by 50% to 27 minutes. A home cooked meal is losing ground in every country, but especially in the United States, since the 1960’s. Instead we, the collective world population of eaters, are fed at restaurants, drive-thrus and with pre-packaged meals found in the frozen section of supermarkets. In the U.S., there are five drive-thrus for every 1 grocery store. We have outsourced the cooking of our food relegating the choice of ingredients to someone else.

A steep price is paid for our departure from our stoves and ovens by our air, soil and water. Examining water alone: the EPA reports 40% of America’s rivers and 46% of lakes are too polluted with nitrates to support aquatic life. Agriculture is the leading source of contaminants. The truth of the matter is to cook in large quantities to feed large quantities requires large agricultural operations which lean heavily on pesticides, petroleum fertilizers, feedlots, and growth hormones—the same contaminants polluting a river near you.

By contrast the home cook, unconcerned with profit margins, can spend more money on ingredients. When I make homemade pizza, I spend $5 per 1/2 pound of organic mozzarella sourced from grazed animals on rain-fed pastures and $8 per pound of organic pork sausage. The pizza chain franchise couldn't possibly buy sustainable, quality ingredients and sell a large pizza for $6.48, the current market price at one popular outlet. Thus, a small rancher, grazing his/her cows on natural pastures is grazed over for the cheaper feedlot raised animal.

Small to medium sized farmers who are stewards of the land and water, like the ones I’ve met all around the country, rely on us, home cooks and a growing, but still small number of farm to table restaurants, to keep them in business.

This brings me back to my kids in the kitchen. Cooks are not born; they are cultivated. For several years, my kids joined me at the farmer’s market and supermarket. They’ve watched me carefully choose our ingredients.They’ve listened to me ask questions of farmers and vendors regarding the water-sustainability of their goods; that is, food grown by minimally diverting water from its natural water cycle. In the process, their pallets developed to discern the difference between fresher, quality ingredients.

My kids know brussel sprouts or broccoli purchased in season from the local farm are almost sweet. They notice the rich golden hue of butter purchased from grazed cows. Although a critical part of their food education, but only the beginning. If we are to support food producers, who are dedicating themselves to raising ingredients without compromising our environment in the process, then we must train the next crop of cooks. My family is proof that kids can cook, and they can start early.

Summer Grilling and Water

I can almost hear the deep rumble of charcoal fall into the steel hollow of a Weber grill, or the click of the propane tank before it ignites an instant fire.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day alone we Americans will stuff 7 billion hot dogs into buns. That translates to 818 per second. This does not include the billions more beef burgers and steaks.

The water footprint of a pound of beef is between 1500 and 2000 gallons of water. A pound of pork, the most popular meat used for a hot dog requires just above 600 gallons of water to produce. According to The Green Blue Book, my handy water footprint resource guide, sausages use almost twice the amount of water of the average pound of pork bringing it’s total water footprint to 1200 gallons.

I am not suggesting you forgo grilling this Memorial Day. Our grill will be lit. But take a moment to consider the origin of meat you choose to nestle between your buns.

We will grill burgers this summer. Our burgers will be draped with grilled red bell peppers, melted Monterey Jack cheese, and smothered with ambrosia sauce. We will nestle our meat between my homemade buns (my husband loves my buns).

The ground beef used to make our burger originates from a cow raised on a grassy hillside within 30 miles of our grill. The cattle is raised on a diet of rain fed grass, grown with green water. I purchased the meat from Watkins Cattle Company at my local farmers market.

My tasty bites of burger won’t compromise local water supplies. The water footprint of my ground beef is largely comprised of green water that does not draw from underground or above ground lakes. I will chew my bite and know my cow fertilized the blades of grass it ate as it wandered around the hillside. My cow did not leave behind a pile of manure or a slurry of manure in a lagoon. She left no traces of hormones and antibiotics that contaminate  drinking water.

The farmer’s market is a great starting point to find locally raised meat. If you live in or near Ventura County, you can purchase meat from Watkins Cattle Company. Visit their Facebook page to find sale locations.

Here are questions to ask your local meat producer to learn about the water footprint of your meat.

1. Ask if their animals are raised in the great outdoors or in confinement. If raised in confinement ask how they dispose of manure.

2. Ask about their animals diets. Ask if the grass or grains are irrigated (blue water) or non- irrigated (green water). Feed of an animal makes up the largest portion of the water footprint. You want animals raised on a higher proportion of green water.

3. Ask if hormones or antibiotics were used on the animal; what goes in the animal comes out the other end and could land in your glass of water.

Take your water conservation this summer to your grill. Enjoy!

Drought Bill and Water (and how it relates to Oprah)

A guest on the Oprah Winfrey show was a young woman in over her head in debt. Oprah said to her something like the following, “I would pay your debt right now if I thought it would help you….but all you will do is run up the debt again.” Instead, she gifted her financial coaching, someone to teach her how to change her spending habits. This Oprah scene comes to mind as I consider the Congressional drought bill awaiting approval by the Senate.

Water, or rather the lack of it, is primed to be a hot political issue in the next election cycle. The drought bill, if passed by the Senate would terminate H.R. 146, designed to restore the San Joaquin River located in the Central Valley of California.

In wet years, 356 thousand acre-feet of water is diverted from farmers to the San Joaquin River. In dry years, like this one, the total is reduced by more than 100 thousand acre-feet. House members backing the drought bill contend that these water deliveries should go to farmers not the river. This extra water is enough to irrigate 82 thousand acres of farmland for one year, only 0.2 percent of California farmland, or 0.6 percent of crop acres in the Central Valley.


A water deficit plagues California. Water is drawn from the ground quicker than rainfall and seepage can naturally replace it. The agricultural community of Oxnard, California, the ground water levels drop by 300 acre feet or 98 billion gallons in wet years and more in dry years. This is nearly the same amount as the water diverted to restore the San Joaquin River; a river of water evaporates into the air and runs to the ocean in my hometown.

Strawberry field in Oxnard, CA


Last spring I met with farmer Mike Benziger at his family vineyard in Sonoma County. He told me, “This year we entered into a three-year drought phase. It could be the worst since 1850, when California began taking records.”


In anticipation, Benziger Family Winery began developing practices to drive the roots deeper in the soil by increasing the organic matter (SOM). According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, soil with SOM can hold water anywhere between 10 to 10,000 times more than soil without. It protects the plants better from pest, disease and drought.


Technology is employed to save water. Electro conductivity mapping splits their farm into blocks based on the geology of the soil. This allows for them to tailor the irrigation requirements for each block. These maps have reduced the water they apply to the plants. Soil probes read the moisture levels every 15 minutes. They are strategically placed around the farm. This technology, though found to reduce an average of 2 inches of water from a farm (about 20 percent) per year, remains an uncommon practice. It is found on only 3 out of 10 irrigated farms.

A soil probe at Benziger Family Farms. The ditch demonstrates the depth of the root systems.


Grey water is used to irrigate the farmland. Gravity carries the industrial waste water into a constructed wetland. This water is delivered to the plants in steady drips. Drip lines are absent on a portion of the farm. The soil retains enough moisture from the fog and rain that the plants require no irrigation–those plants are dry farmed.


Constructed wetland on the Benziger vineyard

Farmers around the country quietly grow food with less irrigated water. They use old farming methods or employ new technology. These farmers each holds the answer to farming in a world adjusting to a new climate. A meaningful drought bill doesn’t pay down a water debt that will only grow again, it instead would chart a new water sustainable path for farming.

Eat less Water at your kitchen table!

Be well,



This Valentine’s Day Skip the Palm Oil Chocolate

Valentine's Day is dipped in chocolate. Truffles neatly arranged in heart shaped boxes will exchange many hands this Friday. Before you make your chocolate purchase this year scan the ingredients for palm oil.

Chocolate is half cocoa butter which solidifies at room temperature. Cocoa butter gives chocolate its sheen, snap and higher melting point. Increasingly, palm oil is substituted for cocoa butter. The versatility and low price of the edible oil are favored among confectioners. The replacement of cocoa butter in chocolate products is expected to grow with the looming cacao shortage.

To produce the world’s most popular vegetable oil, the tropic landscapes are engulfed with orderly rows of palm trees. In Indonesia, the world’s number one producer of palm oil, the metamorphosis of terrain is the most drastic.

Indonesia, a gathering of 18,000 islands on the Indian Ocean are lush in biodiversity and host to one of the world’s most extensive peatlands. Peatland is simply layers of soggy plant debris; they act as fresh water reservoirs. Formed over a period of 10,000 years, the layers of plant material can reach depths of 70 feet. The saturated land is a critical source of clean drinking water for animals and humans living downstream.

Peatlands are critical in regulating the world’s climate. They hold 30 percent of the world’s carbon, more than all the forests combined. Over the ages they’ve absorbed 1.2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. This amount is equivalent to carbon emitted from 34 thousand coal plants in a year.

During the dry season, peatlands are ablaze in Indonesia. Illegal fires down virgin forests and drain peatlands. Palm is planted on the cleared terrain.

Nearly 2 million palm plantations grow on former peatlands in Indonesia. The Indonesian government issues face masks to its citizens to bear the sinister smoke from smoldering peatlands. But the damage is irreversible. The carbon is released into the atmosphere, the foremost contributor to climate change.

An estimated 5 percent of the world's palm oil is certified by The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an certifying organization established to improve environmental practices in the palm oil industry. While the RSPO has begun to tighten regulations of certified members on the issue if deforestation and peatland conversion a ban has yet to be implemented.

I purchase chocolate without palm oil. It is my silent stand to protect peatlands and our shared world climate.

Eat less water at your kitchen table!

Be well,



“The Third Thing” That Makes Water

D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes it water. And nobody knows what it is.”

It was 75 degrees at 4:30 P.M. at the beach. I’d just dropped my eldest daughter off at ballet class and was heading home to start dinner and coax Joaquin, my 7 year-old son,  to finish his homework. The bright blue sky and warm air persuaded me to take a detour.

“Who wants to go to the beach?” I asked.

My daughter, Estrella cheered, and Joaquin moaned. Rarely a unanimous decision with kids. My vote made two against one in favor of the beach; the car headed west.

I needed to see the ocean water, smell the salt, and hear the slap of waves on sand. It had been a tough week (and it was only Tuesday). I’ve had too many arguments about division with my ten-year old daughter. And my frustration level with teachers assigning too much homework was at its peak.

Water has a calming effect over us. Neurologist gathered in a first ever conference of it kind in San Francisco last year to brainstorm why. One possibility was the similarity in chemical composition of the brain, body water and seawater. Science recognizes what we intuitively know, the water coursing in our body and swimming on the earth’s surface are the same. Only skin separates us.

Joaquin, Estrella and I hiked to a narrow sand bar between the ocean and the river.

“This is an estuary,” I told my kids. “The water is not freshwater, nor saltwater, it is brackish water, a mixture of both.”

“I want to stay here forever,” said Estrella as she approached the smooth water that held the reflection of the sky. She proceeded to toss sand into the water.

“Why are you throwing sand?” I asked.

“I like the way it sounds,” she answered. I stood and listened with her. The sound was fine, like the sand itself.

Joaquin and I moved slowly towards a herd of pelicans. We crossed an imaginary line in the sand. They took to the sky. They left behind indentations of their webbed feet for me to marvel. The sand bar was covered with bird prints. The artistry of nature at work.

It was time to return to the car. The air still warm but the obligations of the evening pressed against me.

“Do you hear that sound?” Joaquin asked on our hike back to the car along the shore.

“The sound of the waves crashing?” I asked.

“No, the sound between the waves.” We both listened.

“It is quiet between the waves. I like that sound,” Joaquin said.

“It’s the sound of peace,” I said.

Joaquin was quiet, then he said, “Maybe, I’ll be a peacemaker someday.”

“Joaquin Paz Rodriguez, you already are.” I answered him. He smiled and joined his sister to chase sandpipers. The sandpipers ran briskly before launching into the air.

I can’t name “the third thing” that makes water. But it is infinite and full of possibilities, like the space between the crashing waves.

Be well,


Not All Wine Sustainability Certifications Are Created Equal

One glass of wine  = 68 gallons of water

One bottle of wine= 365 gallons of water


Benziger Family Winery Vineyard in Glen Allen, California
Photo credit: Alice Linsmeir

Over the last few weeks I’ve researched the wine industry for my chapter Wine and Water. I’ve found many wineries list some sort of sustainability plan and/or third party certification. But sustainability plans or third-party certification are unequal in their ability to protect diminished water tables and water quality.

I contacted a third-party certification non-profit organization listed on several winery web sites. I asked a representative if a wine label can become certified and continue the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers known to pollute waterways. I asked about one particular wine label they certified (distributed in every retail outlet of wine in the country) who writes on their website under the heading sustainability,  “we only spray pesticides and use synthetic fertilizers when necessary.” Could that not be said of any conventional farm, I wondered aloud. “A farm can use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers as long as they keep it out of the waterways,” she answered. Our conversation ended shortly after I asked her how.

Benziger Family Winery located in Sonoma County, California is showcased in my upcoming book Eat Less Water. They farm using biodynamic and organic farming methods and purchase additional grapes from 40 grape growers who participate in their Farming for Flavor program. Farming for Flavor is third-party certified by Stellar Certification, the organic certification arm of Demeter Biodynamic. Certified growers meet a comprehensive set of standards which incorporate organic farming methods which drive the root systems deeper and increase organic matter in the soil.

Increasing the organic matter in the soil  (SOM) can absorb water 10 to 10,000 times more than soil without SOM according to the USDA National Resources Conservation Services.  If all soil was active with organic matter the NRCS estimates soil erosion would drop by 72 percent, saving 35 billion dollars in soil every year. U.S. cropland loses 30 percent of its soil from erosion, soil swept away into our water and air.

Farming for Flavor certification requires farmers to cultivate their land for organic matter without chemicals. This reduces water pollution and decreases water draws from diminishing water tables. This is a certification designed to protect the land, soil and water. And the reward is superior grape quality.

Sustainability on vineyards needs to dig deeper than their wells. I shop for the wine labels with a third party certification I can trust to protect the integrity and abundance of water.

Eat less water at your kitchen table.

Be well,