The Washington lobbyist for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe flew this month to Japan with 10 pounds of wild rice, displaying them alongside offerings of salmon from Alaskan tribes and olive oil and wine from California Indians.
He was on a mission to find importers at Foodex, the largest food show in Asia.
"It could be an economic boom for the reservation," said Richard Robinson, division director of the tribe's Division of Resource Management.
Leech Lake is moving to expand its wild rice harvest from a sporadic enterprise involving mostly tribal members to a full-fledged business with international reach. Leech Lake has hired a marketing specialist and is going to food shows to talk up the savory and nutritional qualities of the rice that grows on tribal waters. It's backed by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under a program that helps smaller food producers grow their business.
It might seem odd to try to make money by exporting rice to Japan. While Japan is one of the largest export markets for rice produced in the U.S., unfavorable trade policies and declining demand from an aging population pose challenges to domestic rice producers sending their goods there.
But Andy Burmeister, the lobbyist, said wild rice isn't actually classified as rice in the market — rather, it's an aquatic grain because it grows in bodies of water, and it is subject to fewer export restrictions.
"Our stuff is something different," he said.
As the Ojibwe story goes, tribal people were told to migrate west until they came upon "the food that grows upon the water." Wild rice, called manoomin, is sacred on Leech Lake. Every fall, residents go out on canoes to harvest the rice, selling much of it to the tribal government for up to $2 a pound.
The tribe sells some of the bounty to nearby stores and distributors, and sometimes to other reservations. But most of the 145,000 pounds they've sold in the past 2 ½ years has been on or around Leech Lake.
The grant has paid for the tribe to hire a sales and marketing manager, Amarin Chanthorn. He said the tribe's wild rice operation never had a professional business plan.
"I'll be frank with you, it's been very unorganized and it's not sales-oriented, it's not a continual push for established contracts or long-term agreements," he said of the tribe's work with outside suppliers.
In recent years, the tribe's wild rice operation has been in the red. He wants the grants to help them "make a turnaround on this and find a way to continue our cultural importance and also make some business sense out of it."
The Leech Lake band operates other businesses — it has three casinos, an office supply operation and two convenience stores. But increasingly, Leech Lake sees the most opportunity in marketing its wild rice to restaurants and stores. It recently shipped wild rice to the upscale food store Dean & DeLuca.
"Today, a lot of organic and health options are a big craze, and we feel like a lot of people don't know the difference between store-bought rice on the shelves and a product that's right from the lake," said Chanthorn.
He said the wild rice is softer, cooks faster and has an earthy, nutty taste compared with conventional rice. Chanthorn hopes they export an additional 10,000 pounds of rice a year. The tribe is fronting its own money to buy the wild rice to sell, but the USDA has agreed to reimburse them up to an extra $300,000 — in addition to the grant — for those purchases.
In its grant application, the tribe suggested it would look to expand its domestic market, too, by attending food shows in Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Leech Lake received a boost last year when it sold some wild rice to the USDA for $270,000 under a program that distributes native-grown food to low-income American Indians who qualify for food assistance around the country.
Daniel Cornelius has worked with Leech Lake and other tribes in the Midwest to help them sell more of their food through federal programs and export markets.
"Economic development is one of the driving factors but … there's a growing recognition and understanding that growing our own foods, providing healthy food, it's a necessary strategy in addressing diet-related illnesses as well as helping to revitalize culture," said Cornelius, who's a technical assistance specialist for the Intertribal Agriculture Council.
While the nonprofit council has been working with tribes to sell their crops since 1994, Cornelius sees a rising interest in native food. He's also working with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to help them sell surplus onions and radishes to the USDA.
The council was the organization that brought together various American Indian tribes, including Leech Lake, at the Foodex show in Japan, where they vied for the attention of 70,000 attendees alongside vendors from Italy, Belgium, Portugal and around the world.
Burmeister met various importers, including one for a Japanese airline.
Last year, the tribe sent 30 pounds of wild rice to a man in Japan who's trying to sell it to importers and distributors. Burmeister also attended a food show in Paris to display the food and is thinking about markets in Europe — say, the U.K., or Nordic countries.
Without these programs there would be very little opportunity for a tribe like Leech Lake to participate in export markets, according to Burmeister. That's because it's expensive to go to food shows and the export markets can be highly specialized.
"It would be difficult for tribes and, I would say, for any small business," he said.