Wild Rice Information and Internet Links
Wild Rice, Minnesota's State Grain, is almost as old as history itself. This highly nutritious grain is not actually rice, but an annual water-grass seed, "zizania aquatica". Naturally abundant in the cold rivers and lakes of Minnesota and Canada, wild rice was the staple in the diet of the Chippewa and Sioux Indians, native to this region.
Even today, the wild rice grown on Minnesota state waters is regulated and must be harvested in the traditional indian way. That means one must first purchase a license, then harvest wild rice during state regulated seasons. The rice must be harvested from a canoe, utilizing only a pole for power and two rice beater sticks as flails to knock the mature seeds into the bottom of the boat.
Enter the commercially produced wild rice. As far back as 1962, Minnesota farmers have tried to tame the "wild" rice. Taming proved more difficult than imagined and almost a quarter of a century later "corralled" would be more appropriate than "tamed" to describe the advances made toward commercialization.
The wild rice plant has received some very special instructions from nature on how to grow, mature and repopulate itself. First a deepwater environment is necessary, requiring commercial wild rice producers to develop good permanent field dikes, similar to those required in cranberry production.
Since wild rice grows in cold weather country, it must have a lot of energy in the spring to germinate from the bottom of a lake or stream. Thus a seed with very high protein has resulted. Naturally, the migrating flocks of ducks and geese moving through this region from their northern canadian breeding grounds found a great energy supply from the wild rice seed. This factor and the unpredictable first severe frost of the fall develops a signal that tells the wild rice plant to try to avoid the seed loss. To accomplish this, the seed panicle produces seeds that mature at different times, some early to miss the frost, some late late to miss the migrating birds.
Another item of concern is shattering. When the seeds matures it shatters during the slightest wind and falls immediately to the ground. This uneven maturity and shattering makes it very difficult for a farmer to harvest the crop once it has been raised.
The wild rice plant has some very distinct growth stages and very unique environmental conditions as well.
First, environment. Since it is an aquatic grass, water is its environment, and proper water depth is important. If too deep, the weak sun rays of spring are diverted from the seed, if too shallow, the plant develops a weak stem. Most important, is consistent water depth. When the seed germinates in the Spring, a tiny hair root anchors the seed in place and the stalk starts to grow to the water surface, picking up air to float itself. When the plant reaches the surface, it joins and forms the float leaf, or banner leaf stage. The long leaves form, floating on the surface of the water at 90 degree angles to the stalk. This is a critical stage for the wild rice plant. Should the water level rise, the stalk is pulled up since it is very weakly rooted. Should the water level drop, the weak stalk can collapse. Also, during this stage, high winds can create large waves that will tear up a wild rice stand.
Should conditions be just right, the leaves produce plant food, the stalk and root system strengthen and create a good strong base to support more vegetative growth of the plant. With this strong base, the strong plant goes aerial, that is, it stands up. the floating leaves rise above the water, spread out to the sun and maturity takes its course. Under good conditions, an overabundance of plants reach this stage and overcrowding occurs, killing many plants, stunting the growth if others. Commercial producers have found that thinning allows the surviving plants to grow larger and stronger. Airboats have been developed with cultivator tools to effectively thin the rice beds.
The month of august is a real test for the maturing wild rice plant. High summertime temeratures and very high humidity conditions around the water environment of wild rice create ideal conditions for Helminthosporium disease development. This and other blight conditions can wipe out a weak overcrowded stand in a matter of days.
As harvest approaches, prodcuers try to time their harvest activities to maximize yield. They drain the water from the fields to dry the ground so that special, high flotation combines can operate in the boggy soils.
September, the usual harvest time for wild rice, is accompanied by unstable north country weather. Now that the water is drained from the fields, the heat reservoir provided by the water is gone and so is the small degree of frost protection the water afforded the wild rice. Should a frost occur now, the crop is lost.
As mentioned earlier, wild rice shatters easily with the wind and a small storm can ruin a farmer's entire crop in minutes.
If the producer survives these many factors, and obtains a successful harvest, his yield is still very meager. Traditional white rice farmers realize a yield of 4,000 to 6,000 pounds per acre. While with virtually the same investment in land, equipment and time, the wild rice producer can sometimes realize only 100-200 pounds per acre.
Now that the crop is in, another very unique process of curing and packing begins. The indians had found wild rice to store indefinitely if the seeds were parched in the fire. Today, we still follow the same process, only in much more sanitary conditions and in greater volumes.
Wild Rice is harvested green, and placed in long narrow rows about 10 inches in depth in a curing yard. While the wild rice is in the curing rows, the chlorophyll dissipates from the plant. To prevent damage to the seed, the process involves turning constantly, and adding water to closely approximate its natural watery repository.
From the curing yard the browned rice kernal with its seed hull intact goes to the parchers where the moisture is dried out. During this process, the starches gelatinize and the characteristic roasted nutty flavor is developed.
From the parchers, the rice is hulled, removing the fibrous hull, exposing only the shiny black wild rice seed.
The wild rice is then graded to as many as 49 grades and transported immediately to a storage facility.
Here all rice is catalogued in, checked for cooktimes and warehoused
for the producers.
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