Promotion Can Take Different Forms
By John Owen
Our promotion of sustainably-grown U.S. rice takes many forms: from radio campaigns and retail displays, to packaging and building food service relationships. One rather unique promotion program undertaken here in Louisiana is the brain child of Thornwell’s Kevin and Shirley Berken, and ornithologists Donna Dittman and Steve Cardiff.
Almost a decade ago, Kevin realized, through the education of Dittman and Cardiff, that his fields were home to an elusive little bird called a yellow rail. His rice fields, like mine, and yours, are home to lots of critters – below and above the water line – but the yellow rail is special. It’s secretive, small, and as a result, on many birders’ bucket list.
It’s also a bird that could be at risk of becoming threatened or endangered. And out of all this, the gang of four saw an opportunity.
Kevin and Shirley began opening their farm to birders and yellow rail enthusiasts and the Yellow Rails & Rice Festival was born. And continues to grow to this day.
|Birders ride the Berken combine at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in 2011.
Just a few weeks ago about 120 birders from 30 states and four countries descended on Thornwell and Jennings and the surrounding area for their shot at checking this bird off their list.
And like the more than 1,200 people who have come before them, they were not disappointed: they all saw yellow rails!
But along the way, something special happened that perhaps they didn’t expect. They learned a lot about rice.
Kevin talked to them about rice production, farming, cooking, and the challenges the U.S. rice industry face. The Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley opened their doors to the birders too to show them what it takes to get rice from the field to their plates.
The birders left southwest Louisiana with a newfound appreciation for what we do, and that’s important, because as we all know, Americans are pretty far removed from the source of their food. And with that distance comes misunderstanding and misconceptions, and those can lead to bad policies and decisions.
A slogan, coined by bird enthusiast and blogger Paul Baicich says a lot about the partnership between birders and the rice industry: “Save a bird – buy rice!” He even makes t-shirts with that slogan – and they sell well. As they should.
The underlying message the festival organizers deliver is that if you care about wildlife and want to ensure they have the critical habitat they need, you should do what you can to support the U.S. rice industry because providing habitat is one of the things we do better than any other crop.
It’s a powerful message and one that is driven home by Kevin letting these birders ride his combine and explore his rice fields looking for their little winged friends. And it pays dividends.
Let’s face it, we need all the friends we can find, and the conservation and naturalist community are a respected and vocal group. Having them willing and able to speak up for U.S. rice, whether with legislators or with their wallets at the grocery store, is very valuable.
I’m thankful Kevin opened his farm to the birders and that he keeps doing it. He stands before them, lecturing them about what we do and taking all their questions – the easy and the difficult. He represents us well, and in so doing, he creates new ambassadors for us. And like the old shampoo commercial went, “if they tell two friends, and they tell two friends…” We’ll be in, you should pardon the expression, the catbird seat.