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A photo of cranes flying over the land in the sunset.© Nancy Crowley

Farmlands Program

2024 Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program Applications NOW OPEN!!

BirdReturns has been working with farmers and landowners since its inception in 2014 to provide early fall and late spring habitat for migratory shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds. This year, The Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership and the Delta Conservancy, with funding and support from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, are bringing the BirdReturns Program to California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Sacramento Valley. These regions are important places for wetland birds of the Pacific Flyway because of their many wildlife-friendly crops like corn, wheat, rice and other row crops. With post-harvest flooding, privately owned farmland creates valuable surrogate wetland habitat that migratory birds depend upon as they make their long journeys from Alaska to California and beyond, and then back again in the spring.

Migratory shorebirds begin arriving in the Central Valley in July, and peak in September. Historically many natural wetlands were drawing down at this time of year, creating ideal habitats for shorebirds to rest and refuel on their southward migrations along the Pacific Flyway.  Most of this land is now in agriculture, but some fields offer the potential to provide needed habitat. This program is designed to take advantage of this opportunity by creating habitat in late July through September when the birds most need it.

The objective of the BirdReturns-Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program is to incentivize farmers to create wetland habitat during the critical habitat window in late summer and early fall by maintaining shallow-flooded conditions on idle or harvested fields for a few weeks between July 15 and September 30 (see below for details). This Program aims to assess the feasibility and market for creating shallow-flooded habitat on a broad suite of post-harvest or idle cropland, targeting rotating/resting crops or crops typically harvested before the late summer target habitat period. Enrollments for this program can start on any Monday between July 15 and September 2.

Participants are selected via an open bidding process. To qualify, fields must have minimal standing vegetation (or stubble) so that shorebirds can easily access the ground surface for foraging. In fields that have recently been in production, incorporation of crop residue must take place to expose the soil.

To apply for the  BirdReturns-Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program, farmers may submit a bid consisting of the desired dollar amount per acre to create the habitat as described in the program details below.

Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program Details

Application Period

May 8, 2024-June 17, 2024 at noon

All bids are final once the application period is closed.

Eligible Applicants

  • Idle or harvested fields in the Delta and the Sacramento Valley that are managed for elimination of crop stubble and vegetation. Most field crops are suitable, including but not limited to wheat and other cereal grains, garbanzo beans, tomatoes, potatoes, sunflower, safflower, corn, or rice. (Although eligible for this program, rice growers are encouraged to apply to the Bid4Birds Program instead. Growers are eligible to participate in only one program. Updated information will be available June 1, 2024.)
  • Fields with a minimum of 30 acres
  • Farmers with access to ground and/or surface water

Ineligible Applicants

  • Fields enrolled in any annual incentive program (i.e., NRCS EQIP) that provides payment to conduct flooding during the same time window that is proposed for enrollment in the BirdReturns-Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program.
  • Within 5 miles of major airports, including Sacramento International and Travis AFB (check map here)
  • Fields less than 30 acres in size
  • Fields located close to population centers may be precluded from participating depending on local mosquito/vector conditions or concerns. Areas indicated in this map will be more carefully assessed. Please reach out to the BirdReturns program manager prior to bidding if all or a portion of your field is located within these areas.

Practice Specifications

Field requirements:

  • Minimum size of an enrolled field is 30 acres.
  • Fields must be open with no trees or vines, little to no vegetation or crop residue.
  • Standing crop stubble or other emergent vegetation must not exceed 10% cover.

Post-harvest field management:

  • Any combination of the following post-harvest crop stubble treatments and incorporation practices may be used to achieve a uniform level surface in the field and remove organic matter. This will reduce the likelihood of mosquito propagation
    • single stubble disc or chisel pass followed by single pass with a finish disc or a roller
    • double pass with a stubble disc
    • burn, chop, or bale followed by one of the discing combinations above

Flooding requirements:

  • Flooding window:  Five weeks between July 15-September 30
    • Enrolled acreage must be fully flooded by the program start date
      • Weeks 1-3: flood to 4 inches or less
      • Weeks 4-5: evaporative drawdown
  • Flooding depth: Maintain depths (4 inches or less) ensuring that no less than seventy-five percent (75%) of each enrolled field is flooded throughout the initial 3-week period.
    • In sloping fields, the shallow end should have moist soil conditions or mud flats. The deep end may be greater than 4 inches.
      • Fields that are out of compliance (e.g., uniformly deeper than 4 inches) are not acceptable.

Mosquito Abatement considerations:

Although adequate vegetation removal and field prep will reduce mosquito propagation, enrolled participants should expect to be treated by mosquito/vector control districts.

All interested applicants should contact their local district representatives to determine the approximate abatement fees prior to applying to ensure that they are accounting for these fees in their bids. Growers can find their mosquito vector control district here. In addition, program managers will notify mosquito/vector control districts upon property selection and landowner confirmation of willingness to enroll.

Program Enrollment Start Date:

  • The application will require a selected start date on a Monday. Growers can start their enrollment on any Monday between July 15 and September 2.
  • If multiple fields (in close proximity) are available for flooding, it is beneficial to stagger the flood-ups by 2-3 weeks.
© Greg Golet
Suitable Conditions: Ideal waterbird habitat with mudflat-like conditions
© Greg Golet
Unsuitable Conditions: Poor field conditions for waterbirds with too much standing crop stubble and water that is too deep
© Greg Golet
Suitable Conditions: Great shallow flooded habitat, attracting lots of waterbirds
© Greg Golet
Unsuitable Conditions: Poor field conditions for waterbirds with too much standing stubble and water that is too deep
© Greg Golet
Suitable Conditions: Good field conditions for waterbirds, though smaller clumps are better
© Greg Golet
Unsuitable Conditions: Poor field conditions for waterbirds, with too much undecomposed vegetation; thick, matted vegetation makes it difficult for waterbirds to forage

Bidding and Selection

Different from most other habitat incentive programs which offer participants a fixed rate for compensation, the BirdReturns 2024 Late Summer Habitat Program requires applicants to submit bids that are informed by their unique costs and individual circumstances.

Guidance for Preparing Bid

To prepare a competitive bid, BirdReturns encourages applicants to consider the real costs they will incur to comply with the practice requirements. Costs to consider in preparing a bid include:

  • Field prep (e.g., disking, pulling berms, pulling drains)
  • Water supply
  • Mosquito/vector abatement costs
  • Additional discretionary labor and field visits, needed to keep fields in compliance with program requirements.

As a point of reference, other similar habitat programs are paying participants a fixed rate on the order of $160/acre in 2024. (The requirements and selection criteria of these programs may vary.) The BirdReturns program may accept a range of bids that are greater or lesser in price, depending on the applications received and other funding considerations.

Bid Ranking and Scoring Process

All bids will be ranked and scored by representatives from the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The selection committee will assess bids according to standardized methods and use a model selection process to predict the habitat value of each bid. Sites will be scored and ranked based on bid price and characteristics important to habitat quality such as overall acreage, field size and location, timing and duration of flooding, and history of bird use in the general area. Applicants that have larger acreages, earlier start dates, and offer competitive pricing will rank higher. Feel free to contact us if you’d like additional information on scoring criteria.

Selection Timelines

  • Program applications will be accepted from May 8 to June 17, 2024
  • Analysis and scoring will be conducted by July 1, 2024
  • Notices of Awards and Rejections will be issued by July 5, 2024

Program Budget

A total of up to $2.5 million is available for the 2024 Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program. We reserve the right to reject any bids that are determined to be unreasonably priced.

Upcoming In-Person Workshops

  • North Delta

Staten Island House – 23319 N Staten Island Rd. Thornton, CA 95686

5/21 and 6/11 from noon – 2pm

  • South Delta

San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation – 3290 N. Ad Art Road Stockton, CA 95215

5/22 and 6/12 from noon – 2pm

  • Sacramento Valley

Yuba- Sutter Farm Bureau – 475 Palora Ave STE A Yuba City, CA 95991

5/23 and 6/13 from noon – 2pm

Why Is the Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program Important?

Millions of ducks, geese, swans, cranes, and shorebirds depend on flooded agriculture and wetland habitats in the Central Valley, where they stopover on their annual migrations. They are critical to its ecosystem and economy and contribute to the quality of life in the region. However, many of the waterbird friendly crops in this region are being converted to permanent crops (trees and vines) that offer little habitat value.

Many waterbird populations are in decline. Shorebirds in particular are in trouble with a 40% decrease in population over the last 50 years. If these birds don’t have a place to rest and refuel during migration, their populations will drop even further. Other important waterbirds that migrate through and overwinter in the Central Valley are also likely to suffer, including the iconic sandhill crane.

This program ensures that shallowly flooded habitat remains on the landscape so that shorebirds have a place to thrive. Maintaining a mosaic of wetlands and well-managed wildlife-friendly croplands will allow these regions to continue to support these birds while simultaneously benefiting other wildlife and the regional economy.  The BirdReturns-Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program is managed by the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (The Nature Conservancy,  Audubon California and Point Blue Conservation Science), in partnership with the Delta Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The BirdReturns-Late Summer Farmlands Habitat Program is managed by the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (The Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, and Point Blue Conservation Science), in partnership with the Delta Conservancy, and the program funder, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.