Diners who prefer their Minnesota wild rice harvested by hand may find it in short supply in the coming months.
Heavy rain early this summer nearly wiped out the natural crop in eastern Minnesota, and wild rice in other historically productive areas to the west hasn't thrived.
"It's highly variable, but I'd have to say that on average, it's been a poor year for us," said Jeff Lightfoot, Grand Rapids-based regional wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the by-hand harvest of wild rice in Minnesota. The DNR issues licenses for hand harvesting, while Indians can harvest independently on tribal waters.
Most of the wild rice grown in Minnesota is not hand harvested but cultivated -- farmed, in a way -- and harvested by machine. Thanks to improvements made by the University of Minnesota, cultivated rice is able to withstand wind, floods and other calamities, said Scott Goehring, owner of Baxter, Minn.-based Christmas Point Wild Rice Co., which sells several kinds of wild rice.
Processors have developed a backlog of cultivated rice this year, Goehring said.
Many diners prefer truly wild and hand-harvested rice for its smoky taste and traditional appeal. But much of what grows in shallow lakes and streams of northern Minnesota, particularly in north central Minnesota, was uprooted as water rose after the record rains of June 19-20.
That downpour created flash floods tore up roads and parks in the Duluth area and swelled the Mississippi River, flooding numerous homes and roads in Aitkin County in particular.
Ken Bruns, a rice processor in Cass Lake, said he's been getting a lot of hand-harvested rice from the Leech Lake and White Earth Indian Reservation areas. But he received virtually none from the areas around Brainerd and Big Sandy Lake near Aitkin, which usually produce thousands of pounds.
Tom Howes, natural resources program manager for the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe, said all the tribe's waters have been closed to rice harvesting this year. There were crop collapses in 2007 and 1999, Howes said, but this is the worst he can recall.
Tribal members "are ranging far and wide" for their traditional rice-harvesting, Howes said.
"There are not a lot of significant rice beds within 100 miles of Duluth."
After germinating in mucky lake and stream bottoms in spring, wild rice grows to the surface in about June, when its leaves lie flat on the water. After that, stalks shoot 3 to 10 feet higher and produce seed. In August and early September, harvesters in canoes or other shallow-draft boats paddle through the rice beds -- watery fields of tall grass -- knocking the seeds into their boats.
So it's a crop that's both iconic and ironic: It's the Minnesota state grain, and, unlike corn and soybeans, it does well in drought conditions.
In a good year with low water -- but not so low that lake bottoms would be unnavigable mud -- Minnesota harvesters might collect 200,000 pounds of wild rice. That's a small percentage of the 4 million to 8 million pounds that might be harvested.
By law, labels must distinguish between wild rice that is hand-harvested and wild rice that is cultivated, machine-harvested or from another state or Canada.
Goehring said the retail and online price of hand-harvested rice could run toward $10.99 per pound this year, the high end of a range he's seen over the past 10 years, and as recently as two years ago. The low was $5.99. Goehring intends to keep his price at $6.99 because he held some rice over from last year.
"No one likes to carry inventory from one year to the next, but when you're dealing with Mother Nature, sometimes you have to," Goehring said.
It's hard, hot work
Hand-harvested wild rice in Minnesota fits an ever-narrowing niche as the number of harvesters continues to decline. In 1968, the DNR issued 16,000 licenses, but it hasn't sold 2,000 in any year since 1996. This year it sold only 965. In good years, another 3,000 residents might harvest rice on tribal waters, according to a 2008 DNR report. Lightfoot said rice-harvesting used to be a way for kids to help pay for college, but cultivated rice has depressed the prices hand-harvesters can get, and the work is hard.
"On some of these hot days, it could be pretty uncomfortable sitting in an aluminum canoe," he said.
Annual hand-harvesting sometimes yielded as much as 3 million pounds in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the DNR. That's 15 times what might get harvested in good years now.
The good news, Lightfoot said, is that in good years a lot of rice goes unharvested, falling into the water to serve as seed for another crop. Like the seeds of native prairie plants, wild rice can lie in lake bottoms for several years before germinating, so there should be enough to start a healthy crop next year, Lightfoot said.
The diminished crop this year, he added, will mean less cover and food for migrating waterfowl, particularly in northeast Minnesota. That means ducks will stick to the west, perhaps improving hunters' chances around Park Rapids and Bemidji.
Bill McAuliffe 612-673-7646