Time for the annual wild rice harvest

It's time for the annual wild rice harvest.

The traditional harvesting technique requires one person to pole a canoe and one or two other people to gather grain. They beat the stalks with paddles, sweeping about half the rice into the boat. The rest of the grain falls to the bottom of the lake, where it sprouts the next spring.

But wild rice in Minnesota is threatened in many ways, and many lakes have produced a poor crop.

Wild rice, or Zizania palustris, is actually an aquatic grass. To grow, it needs shallow water and a mucky bottom. Drainage and damming of wetlands or lakes for farming or reservoirs have destroyed wild rice habitat. (Wild rice once grew throughout Minnesota and the eastern United States. In Minnesota alone, there are 70 Rice Lakes and 25 other lakes with "Rice" in their names, even though wild rice may no longer grow there.) And runoff of herbicides and nutrients from farm fields kills rice, too.

Fluctuating water levels are tough on the plants. When wild rice sprouts in the spring, a tiny root anchors the seed in place. When the stalk reaches the surface, long leaves form, floating on the surface of the water. If the water level rises, the weakly rooted stalk is pulled up and the plant dies. If the water level drops, the weak stalk collapses, killing the plant.

Carp often kill wild rice seedlings. They're bottom-feeders, digging up and disturbing young plants as the fish search for food. (These fish are not native.)

But there's another threat: for decades, the University of Minnesota has been researching wild rice, aiding in the development of 25,000 acres of machine-harvested, cultivated paddy rice in Minnesota. See, the seed head of the wild grain shatters easily. That allows the plant to seed itself, but makes it tough to farm commercially. Many fear it's just a matter of time until scientists genetically modify the wild rice genome, and contamination by genetically modified rice might decrease the economic and cultural value of the wild grain.

"We consider the wild rice to be a sacred gift from the Creator and it's always been here for us. Now, if the rice is altered genetically, it may be a strain that will take over the wild rice, and we will lose what was given to us by the Creator."
(Earl Hoagland, Ojibwe tribal elder)

(Not everyone agrees that the genetic research is a problem.)

Bills banning genetically modified wild rice in Minnesota (supported by White Earth Band members) didn't make it through the last legislative session, but will be reintroduced next year.

But here's the good news. At Lower Rice Lake on the White Earth Indian Reservation (north of Detroit Lakes), where lakefront development is prohibited and the White Earth Land Recovery Project manages the watershed, 200 people participate in the traditional harvest, gathering 11,000 to 15,000 pounds of rice a day, or 200,000 to 300,000 pounds each year. The rice is processed locally and sells for about $8.50 a pound. The grain itself feeds many White Earth families, and the proceeds from the rice harvest are a significant chunk of the annual income of many families.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think that your work is very cool and I enjoy looking at what you have put out.

posted on Mon, 11/21/2005 - 10:18am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Do you know where i can get a list of lakes with wild rice? I'm a harvester.

posted on Fri, 09/14/2007 - 10:20am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This is a very intesting topic

posted on Mon, 05/09/2011 - 12:59pm

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