Harvesting Wild Rice
Maybe the best thing about harvesting wild rice, other than a taste that seems to reflect the soul of our natural world, is the setting where this delicate grain is gathered.
Sunset had brought an end to our day of harvest. We pulled our canoe into the remote, undeveloped boat landing tucked into the shoreline of the couple hundred acre lake that had no jet skis, speed boats or, since it’s surrounded by public forest, development of any kind late on this September day. On other evenings wolves howled at us as we bagged the day’s harvest, but tonight the only sounds came from the rippling pinions of the evening flight of ducks coming into the lake to gorge undisturbed on this coveted grain. Scooping up the green rice from the bottom of the canoe, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate we are that places like this still exist in our outdoor Wisconsin.
The management of wild rice, or manoomin as it’s known to the Great Lake Chippewa tribes, was reaffirmed in the now decades old off-reservation treaty rights case because of the cultural and religious importance of wild rice to tribal members who have been harvesting rice for more than one thousan years. Together with Wisconsin DNR staff, rice chiefs who are appointed by the tribe determine the best dates for harvest on the various lakes by tribal and non-tribal ricers in northern Wisconsin’s ceded territory. Some waters of the state are unregulated for the harvest of rice, but the biggest and best of these waters, primarily located in the northwest and north-central areas of the state, have now been regulated by tribal and state law for years.
Only residents may harvest wild rice in Wisconsin, but the $8.25 license required for anyone between ages 16 and 65 also allows immediate family members to harvest rice under that authority. No mechanical devices can be used to harvest rice and the gathering hours are from 10 a.m. until sunset, giving any dew a chance to dry in the morning and birds a chance to feed undisturbed in the evening. Canoes are the primary craft used and they must be no more than 17 feet long and 38 inches wide.
Normally two people work together, one either poling or paddling the canoe through the rice beds while the other, using two sticks called flails, pulls the rice stalks over the canoe gunwale with one stick and gently knocks the rice off the stalks with the other. The mature grains fall into the boat. These flails must be round, wooden rods that are no more than 38 inches long. Together with natural seeding, this process allows enough rice to go back into the water to insure future generations of wild rice and still leaves enough for feeding wildlife. By using this method, the less mature grains located on the lower end of the stalk that don’t readily fall can be harvested a few days later when they mature and don’t cling to the stalk, as they did a few days earlier.
Wild rice ripens at a gradual, uneven rate that can extend for up to five weeks on a certain lake, which enhances the total harvest. An acre of good beds can yield more than 500 pounds of rice, but hand harvesting will only capture 10 to 15 percent of this amount, leaving plenty for wildlife and reseeding.
As with other natural resources, all wild rice lakes are not created equally. Some lakes produce long, thick grains of rice; others lakes have smaller grains. This diversity is a product of natural selection, because the pollen of wild rice, similar to corn, is quite heavy and doesn’t drift far. Individual stands of rice appear to have developed unique characteristics that have adapted to conditions in that body of water. By the appearance of the grain, people who really know wild rice can examine the grains and tell you which lake the wild rice came from.
Chris Smith, of Hayward, is one of these people. With her business partner Paul Vallem, they took over the Rice Shack, a seasonal cottage-type business their fathers started years ago. They finish the unprocessed rice that harvesters bring to them. Using old tried-and-true equipment and generations of experience, these finishing experts remove the hull and chaff from the green rice in a time-honored manner.
“We can tell which waters the rice comes from because of the different characteristics of the hulls and grains in them. Some have thin, lose hulls and others have tight fitting hulls, which means we have to use a different timing sequence to remove them,” said Smith. “Over the years we‘ve collected rice samples from all of the lakes around here and have learned how long to ‘cook’ the rice from the different lakes.”
Harvesters can expect about a 50 percent return of finished rice from the green rice they bring in, which removes the hulls and other foreign materials collected during the gathering process, including the moisture in the grain itself.
“If you bring me 30 pounds of green gathered wild rice that has been floor dried first, you should get a return of about 15 pounds of finished rice.”
Floor drying simply means the gathered rice is spread out on a tarp placed on the garage or basement floor where any surface water on the rice is allowed to evaporate before bringing it in for processing.
The first step of Smith and Vallem’s finishing process is parching. The green rice is placed into a big drum with a controlled heat setting where the grain shrinks and the hulls dry and loosen from the grain. The time spent in the parcher and other steps in the finishing process is determined by the body of water and drying time needed for an individual lake’s rice. The parcher reduces the moisture of the rice down to 7 to 10 percent.
Once this has been completed and the hulls are lose, the rice is put into a thresher, the next step in the process. The carpeted lining of the threshing drum has padded paddles inside that rub the hulls off the grain during the slow revolutions of the drum that blows the hulls onto the ground outside, leaving the grains of rice at the bottom of the thresher.
The final step in the process is the fanning mill, which finishes the rice by blowing any remaining powder or hull material from the rice out of the mill. The end result of this process is described by Chris Smith very simply. “I call it green gold.”
Some gatherers sell their rice to organic markets where it can bring between $12 and $20 a pound, depending on the size of the grain, but most keep their harvest and use it often over the long winter.
Wild rice is a staple in the diet of Smith where she uses it as a side dish for any meat, fish or fowl. “It’s great in a casserole or in a cold salad, but I really like it when it’s used as a stuffing in walleye and there’s no better turkey soup in the world than soup you make with wild rice.”
Late summer and early fall is a glorious time of the year in Wisconsin and there’s no better place to enjoy the transition of summer to fall than in a canoe floating through beds of wild rice gathering, as Smith says, “green gold.”