If you’ve ever seen real wild rice in local stores for sale, (the greenish brown stuff, not the cultivated black wild rice sold for less than $5 a pound) you may have wondered why it is so expensive. At $10 to $12 dollars per pound, or more, it is definitely a delicacy. There’s good reason for the price; wild rice is hand harvested in Wisconsin and it is a time-consuming process. I’ve been harvesting rice for a few years now. Ricing is hard work, but not as hard as you may think. Anyone can do it with the right equipment, and a little time and energy.
The Wild Rice Beds
This year, on my first day out I took a friend along who had never harvested wild rice before. We went on a late August afternoon on one of the first days that the rice was ripe enough to harvest. I had been watching the progress of the wild rice on a local flowage not far from my home and waiting for it to ripen since early August. As harvest time drew nearer, I had been growing more and more excited at the prospect of getting out to harvest it.
We put the canoe in at a boat launch on the north side of the flowage where the rice was growing nearly to the shoreline. My job was to push the canoe along with a 12 foot ricing pole. As I began pushing the canoe toward the rice, I felt the tension and tiredness of the day slip away. Each push into the flowage brought me closer to the serenity I’d been looking for, and I was happy to finally be on the water ready to begin harvesting wild rice.
My ricing partner, Kathy, though new at this, was game and most importantly, she was not afraid of spiders or worms, and was willing to get dirty. Ricing requires a strong-armed poler, in this case me, to push a 12-14 foot long pole into the mucky bottom of a lake or flowage, usually in water two to three feet deep, to propel a canoe through thick beds of wild rice in a somewhat straight line. It also requires someone like Kathy to sit in the front of the canoe with two sticks in her hands, one which she uses to pull stalks of wild rice down over the middle of the canoe and one that she taps or “knocks” the tops of the stems of rice with to shake loose the ripe seeds. Knocking is arguably the less physical job but it involves being scraped by sharp and rough leaves and seed heads as the canoe propels through the rice, and, as previously mentioned, having spiders and biting rice worms crawling over you as they drop from the rice plants. It is also tiring, as your arms and hands are constantly moving.
Wild rice ripens gradually, with seeds on the same plant ripening at different times over a two week period. This is great for ricers, as you can go out several days over the two weeks or so to get enough rice to really make it feel worthwhile. I believe that everything in nature happens for a reason, and often the reason one organism does one thing, is to further the survival of another organism. Wild rice is highly nutritious, high in protein, and contains many important vitamins and minerals. I imagine that nature allows the seeds to ripen over time to allow migrating and soon-to-migrate birds plenty of time to beef up on the tasty seeds, giving them the energy they will need on their journey south.
The rice bed we were in covers several hundred acres. There were other ricers out in their canoes throughout the bed, but we rarely saw or heard them. The few we spoke to were as thrilled to be out in the rice as we were. There’s more than enough rice for everyone who wants to harvest it. And more than enough for the ducks, rails, bitterns and other birds that are hidden in the understory. As we harvest, much of the seed drops into the water, assuring us there will be rice next year and for several years after that.
Processing the Wild Rice
What rice makes it into our canoe will go through several steps before we will be able to eat it. First, we take it home and spread it out in the sun to dry the seeds and allow the bugs to die or depart. The seeds are encased in a long spear-shaped husk that drops off the plant when ripe. These husks drop into the canoe when harvested, and that is what is taken home for further processing.
After the sheaths of rice are allowed to dry, it is time for processing. I have tried a modified version of processing a small amount of rice by hand, but found that it is a lot of work. First you parch, or roast, the sheaths in a metal pot over a fire, which cooks the outer husk and helps loosen it from the seed, and also cooks any remaining rice worms, which turn to dust (yeah, that’s some of what you wash off when you rinse the rice before cooking it!). This part was not hard, and it was actually kind of fun.
The next step is what is too much work for me. This is the part that is still done ceremoniously by the Anishinaabe, as they have done for hundreds of years, by putting the rice into a pit lined with deerskin and dancing on it with new moccasins to remove the husk from the seed. The thing is, not every husk is removed, and the remainder then need to be removed one by one by hand. I did try to dance on the rice, but I’m sure I was doing it wrong, probably looked quite silly, and soon gave up. Instead, I opted to wear leather gloves and rubbed the rice between my hands, which loosened many of the husks, but it took so long to do small handfuls at a time. I used a fan to blow away the loosened husks from the rice as I tossed it into the air using a small round sledding saucer, but too many pieces of rice still had at least part of the husk attached and still required removal by hand. All in all I found it to be too much work!
Nowadays, most ricers take their rice to a modern processor who uses tumblers and agitators to remove the husks. This process also polishes the seed. Most processors charge a small fee per pound or a portion of the cleaned rice as payment for the task, which is definitely worth it!
Wild Rice Rules and Regulations
There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to try your hand at harvesting wild rice. First, to harvest rice in Wisconsin, you must be a Wisconsin resident. You also must purchase a license, unless you are a tribal member. The license fee is nominal ,$8.50, and helps pay for wild rice management. You must harvest from a boat that is no longer than 17 feet long and 38 inches wide. You must propel your boat with muscle power, either by poling or paddling. You also must use wooden sticks that are no longer than 38 inches long and harvest the rice by hand. I lucked out and was gifted a set of cedar ricing sticks from a friend, and I made my own pole from a maple sapling, fitting a y-shaped branch to the end to help grab the bottom of the lake while poling. Traditionally, a tamarack pole is used. You can find pre-made poles at sporting goods shops, and many people fit a duck-bill, also available at sporting goods stores, to the end of theirs in place of the y-shaped branch.
Wild rice is native to the Upper Midwest and Canada. It has been harvested by indigenous people for many centuries, and is still an important part of local Native American culture. The Anishinaabe came to Wisconsin from the east coast several centuries ago to fulfill a prophecy that they were to travel west following the Great Lakes until they reached “the land where the food grows on the water”. The food in question, it turned out, was wild rice. As part of the treaties that the Ojibwe made with the United States government, they still retain harvesting rights over much of the waters where the wild rice grows.
Many of the ricing lakes in Wisconsin are regulated by the local tribes and have open and closed seasons. Others, like the one I harvested on, are unregulated. This means that a person with proper license and equipment, can begin to harvest any day once the rice begins ripening. A good way to find out if your destination is ready to harvest is to talk to local WIDNR staff, and you can also check the ricing report on the WI-DNR website.
Harvesting rice, while a somewhat dirty and repetitive, time consuming task, is a fulfilling past-time. It brings you closer to nature, out in the middle of it, really. And it’s a great way to spend an afternoon with a good friend. When Kathy and I were out for the first time the other day, early in the harvesting season, the rice was just starting to drop. The weather had been cool and the rice has taken its time ripening. A couple good days of sunshine is needed to get it going strong, when it will drop twice as fast. We collected about 10 pounds of rice in its husk in two hours time on the first day. Not a great amount, but it was a start. I plan on returning to the rice beds several times this season, and hope to get several times that much rice. I am looking forward to eating rice all fall and winter and sharing it with my friends and family. A pound of wild rice in a zip lock bag placed inside a handmade cloth bag makes a great Christmas present. And I harvested it myself, which makes it an even more valuable gift.