by Annette Dray Drewes
Three feet above my head the slightly moving, tawny green stalks of rice quietly close around us. Sound, sky, and light filter through these living walls as slowly we pick up a rhythm, reaching, parting, and pulling rice stalks over the side of the boat. Strong, alternating sweeps of the knocking sticks bring a shower of heavy seed, raining into the bottom of the canoe.
From Harvest to Home
Coming to open water in the rice bed, we pause. I sink my hand deep into the pile of rice in front of me. The heavy seed, a mixture of pale greens and purples, feels solid, rich, sustaining. Atop the pile, the slender awns point skyward, creating a peltlike covering.
Gathering the rice off this northern Minnesota lake is only the first step in the process of turning the state's native grass into a dish for the dinner table. Like other grains, wild rice must be dried (parched), the grain separated from the hull (threshed), and cleaned (winnowed) before it is ready for storage in the pantry. For first-time ricers and many who harvest for personal use, locating someone to finish the rice is the most challenging step because the number of processors in most areas is dwindling.
Harvesters in a 2006 Department of Natural Resources survey identified finding a processor as one of the top three barriers to harvesting wild rice; the others were knowing when and where to harvest. Some 85 percent said they gather wild rice for personal use. This is a shift from the 1950s and '60s, when wild rice was considered a cash crop and Minnesota supplied about half of the wild rice consumed worldwide. Declining participation in harvesting and market economics have influenced the number of wild rice processors able to stay in the market.
Simply put, processing wild rice is a dying art, and few are stepping forward to continue the tradition.
Indigenous people of the region have practiced the fall gathering of wild rice for thousands of years. Today this gathering involves both Ojibwe and nontribal harvesters. Annual licenses sold by the DNR to harvest wild rice peaked at 16,000 in the late 1960s and in recent years has typically numbered around 1,500. Roughly twice that number of harvesters participate under tribal regulation.
How many wild rice processors are there in Minnesota? No one knows exactly because processors don't need to be licensed by the state unless they buy wild rice for resale. Processing operations come in various sizes. Some families and friends finish their own rice using traditional methods. Small side-yard processors, usually found by word of mouth, process batches of 100 to 300 pounds. Large operations with permanent facilities can handle 1,000-pound orders.
Tucked in the woods just west of McGregor is the wild rice processing business of Dale Greene Sr., a Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe elder of 77 years. Greene sits outside one of two new buildings, his calloused hands working on an electrical switch. He has been processing wild rice for over 10 years, was a buyer before that, and prior to that harvested wild rice beginning at age 12. He learned the art of processing from Clarence Sandberg, former owner of the plant. Greene runs one of the larger operations for custom processing of hand-harvested rice and draws harvesters in from as far away as White Earth, 180 miles to the northwest.
Inside one building, four large black parchers line up over propane burners. Each can dry up to 300 pounds of wild rice. Propane provides a consistent, clean heat, yet each batch of rice is different and must be watched accordingly.
In a quiet voice, Greene describes the responsibility of keeping wild rice ecosystems healthy. "We need to quit messing with dams on the lakes, trying to control water levels," he says. "Spring flows bring in nutrients and flush out the dead leaves and stuff, allowing the rice seed to get into the bottom mud."
One of his grandsons approaches with a test scoop of parched rice. Greene pours a few grains into his hand. Snapping a kernel in half, he looks inside for that glossiness he uses to judge when the rice is done. He nods and says it's close.
"My grandsons have their hearts into wild rice," he says. Four of them and a nephew work with him to process wild rice.
This year Greene will process nearly 10,000 pounds, a number he hopes to increase substantially next year.
"More harvesters are coming to us because processors are getting scarce."
Greene considers his work a service. "Younger people don't want to take it on, no money in it." But he has hope through his grandsons, if the rice stays healthy.
On the White Earth Indian Reservation along the low shores of Roy Lake, Oscar "Sunfish" Oppegard, a White Earth elder, runs a small, side-yard wild rice processing operation. Most harvesters here are locals from the reservation, yet some come from as far as Mille Lacs and McGregor.
A delicious aroma wafts on the breeze. The rhythmic sound of wild rice being turned emanates from the parcher, a large metal fuel tank able to hold 250 pounds of rice. A paddle wheel moves the rice up the sides of the tank, then lets it fall back to the heat on the bottom. The sound reminds one of ocean waves breaking on the shore.
The parcher requires a constant watch as the wood stacked beneath it burns. Steam escapes from an opening on top, a sign of moisture still in the rice. Ask most harvesters and you will get an opinion regarding the better fuel for parching, propane or wood.
"Hard parch [with wood] gives you a little bit different flavor. Lot of people like what I'm doing here," says Oppegard.
Constantly on the move, Oppegard checks each batch of rice before moving it to the next processing stage. With two parchers going, a backlog often occurs at the thresher, or dehuller, a modified 55-gallon oil drum. Inside the drum, rubber-coated paddles beat the parched rice, breaking the hulls loose. An old, red McCormick Farmall tractor provides the power to the thresher.
Oppegard muses that he would like to build a bigger mill for the future, including roofing over some of the equipment and adding a new and different thresher.
South of Garrison near Whitefish Lake, Martin Jennings and his family process their own rice. A Leech Lake Band member, Jennings began "finishing" wild rice in college.
In an old field, wild rice is spread out on tarps, drying in the sun. Nearby a wood fire burns beneath a medium-sized cast-iron kettle, one-third filled with rice. From a chair beside the kettle, Joyce Shingobe, a family friend, stirs the rice with a small cedar paddle. She scoops the rice up one side of the tilted kettle, then lets it cascade back to the heat. Too much heat will pop the rice—like popcorn. In 20 minutes this batch should be thoroughly parched.
Jennings and his son Marty walk across the field to a friend's cabin tucked in the edge of the forest. In the yard, a clump of birch trees provides the perfect setting for jigging rice. Two stout, 8-foot poles meet high in the birches and support the thresher—Jennings. He stands in a wooden tub filled with parched wild rice. He twists his smooth-soled boots back and forth to separate the rice from the hulls.
Jennings pauses after roughly eight minutes, sweat beading his face. On a good day, he can jig out about 40 pounds of fully parched rice an hour. Today he empties about half of the rice from the tub into a birch-bark winnowing tray, which he made by hand.
Paying attention to the slight breeze, he tosses the rice up with a smooth motion of his wrists, allowing the chaff to fall to the ground while keeping the full seed solidly in the basket. It's a practiced motion, one that he has done for nearly 30 years—and one that he says he will continue to do as long as he can.
Though Minnesota has fewer processors of native wild rice today, business is booming for the remaining processors. And some of those processors would welcome a little more competition.
"We were loaded right to the last day," says Oppegard of the demand at his yard-processing operation. "There is more room for processors."
The philosophy among those working with wild rice is not market-driven, but driven by tradition—and the desire to preserve this art.
"I want to see the young kids get interested by participating," says Jennings, "and pass the whole process on to the next generation."