Wild rice growers worry about climate change hurting crops

Red Lake cultivates 800 acres of wild rice.
The Red Lake Nation cultivates 800 acres of wild rice. With its rich, nutty and complex flavor, the wild rice that grows in Wisconsin and Minnesota is one of a kind.
John Enger | MPR News 2017

Wild rice harvest season runs through mid-September in northern Wisconsin, and while many tribal and nontribal people are enjoying their annual pilgrimages to their favorite rice wetlands, others are concerned about the effects of climate change on this unique crop.

With its rich, nutty and complex flavor, the wild rice that grows in Wisconsin and Minnesota is one of a kind.

“It isn’t found anywhere else in the world,” said Peter David, a biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. “We have to be global stewards of this food.”

Wild rice, known by its Ojibwe name as manoomin, is an important part of Ojibwe culture.

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“I can’t really overstate how centered manoomin is to Ojibwe identity,” David said.

The Ojibwe had once lived on the eastern seaboard, according to the tribal migration story, and there was a prophecy that stated if they wanted to survive as a people they would have to move west.

They kept moving westward for several generations as the prophecy commanded until they found “a place where the food grows on water” and they finally found their home in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.

Wild rice is a food that has high nutritional value and can be stored for a long time, such as through winter.

“It was really an important sustenance food,” David said.

Wild rice contains about 10.5 grams of protein, nearly 4 grams more than white rice, about 4 more grams of fiber than white rice, 8 more milligrams of calcium than white rice and more than 359 more milligrams of potassium than white rice.

It also is very high in antioxidants and is gluten-free, David said.

Wild rice grows in shallow wetlands between a half-foot to 3 feet in depth in rich, organic substrates.

It is typically harvested by two people in a nonmotorized canoe with one using a push pole to provide the propulsion and the other using two sticks to gently shake the stalks to loosen the rice grains that fall into the boat.

With this method, about 90 percent of the seeds fall back into the water, ensuring another crop for the next year.

Each seed is enclosed in a husk, and the traditional process for separating the rice includes first spreading the crop to dry on birch bark mats.

The rice is then parched over a low fire before being placed in a lined hole in the ground, where someone wearing a special set of moccasins would dance on it in a tip-toe fashion as a form of threshing.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in a cooperative effort with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources monitors and manages about 6,000 acres of off-reservation wild rice wetlands in the state, which can produce about 60,000 pounds of rice annually.

Nontribal members can purchase a family license for $8.25 from the state to harvest the off-reservation rice in accordance with the state’s stipulations, which include hours of operation and only when the rice is ripe as determined by the DNR and Ojibwe rice chiefs.

David said there is a small global market for wild rice and purveyors are usually small, family-run operations.

He said there are larger operations that sell cultivated rice that doesn’t taste quite the same as wild rice.

Cultivated rice is supposed to be labeled as such, but David said one way to tell the difference is price because cultivated rice can sell for about $20 for a 5-pound bag while just 1 pound of wild rice can sell for $15.

David and other wild rice experts are worried about the impact of climate change on wild rice.

“Manoomin is a plant adapted to harsh northern environments, and nearly every prediction of change brings negative impacts to wild rice,” he said. “We are already seeing failures of infrastructure on some human-made flowages that support rice with whole beds being uprooted after heavy rainfall events, which caused increased levels of disease outbreaks associated with wetter, warmer and more humid conditions.”

Peter McGeshick III, a rice chief with the Sokaogon Community of Mole Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, has been harvesting rice for more than 50 years on the reservation and said this year is a particularly bad harvest.

“When the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) agent came to ask why we chose this place for our reservation, our chief showed him a handful of wild rice,” he said.

McGeshick said seven bodies of water had once grown wild rice on the reservation, but increasing water levels, such as from run-off water, have decreased that to only one body of water they call Rice Lake.

Last year, the harvest from Rice Lake was about 23,000 pounds, but this year’s harvest will only be about 5 percent of that, McGeshick said.

He said he’s been praying with his tobacco pouch on the lake in the hopes of restoring its health.

The problem is brown spot disease and the rice worm, which thrive when there’s too much water and humidity in the rice wetlands.

The region has been impacted by heavy rains this year.

“This year is a different year, but it happened for a reason,” McGeshick said. “We will have rice, but not as much as we’d like. We’ll take what the Creator gives and we’ll give thanks to the Creator.”

McGeshick said he was still able to harvest about 750 pounds of rice to be used in reseeding projects elsewhere, including in the Green Bay area.

And one couple recently was able to harvest about 35 pounds, he said.

McGeshick said he’s aware that other Ojibwe communities in different regions that haven’t suffered as adverse conditions are having bumper harvests this year.

David said harvest estimates aren’t yet available for this year, but he is hearing anecdotal evidence of good harvests in the Hayward area.

“There are some lakes that are much better than others just about every year,” he said.

McGeshick said he’s been working with biologists and others on projects to help control the water levels on Rice Lake because rice is such an essential part of his community.

“Wild rice talks to you if you listen to it,” he said. “In the breeze, you can hear that spirit that let’s you know everything is good and ‘I’m here for you, I’m here to help you.’ … There’s a calming effect being in the wild rice. … It’s who we are as a people.”