It all starts with building a wood fire early in the morning to create the bed of glowing coals needed to parch rice through the day.
John Hayes and John Beltman are tending the fire. They’ve brought several large sacks of recently harvested wild rice to be processed in a tin roofed shed in Ball Club, about midway between Cass Lake and Grand Rapids.
They’ve been harvesting wild rice in the area for about 30 years.
“We try to end up with at least 300 pounds off the water,” said Hayes, who works as an attorney in Cohasset. “On a good day, in a peak year, it’s 300 pounds of green rice in a day, but you don’t get that every year,” adds Beltman, who lives in Suomi and works at the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids.
This year’s wild rice crop is hit or miss, depending on the lake.
“This is only our second day processing, it's gonna be a short year,” said Frank Bibeau, an attorney who has represented the interests of wild rice in court cases and owns this operation.
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“It's good if you can find it, there are spots that you can go pick,” he said. “But a lot of the traditional spots that we would go to on a number of lakes around here just didn't have rice.”
And the rice varies in size and quality depending on where it’s harvested, said Hayes, as he rubbed kernels in his hands to loosen the hulls.
"Some lakes have heavy, long grain, some are real short and fat and football like, and stuff on the river is average to a little bit smaller. So a lot of folks call it sand rice. But it still eats."
Hayes likes to keep about 30 pounds of finished rice for his family, and he sells the rest of the harvest he’ll split with Beltman.
The first step in processing rice is drying it, so the hull and the kernel will separate.
Bibeau slides a parcher set on rails over the thick bed of coals. The parcher is made from a large oval fuel tank with the top cut off. An electric motor turns steel paddles slowly inside, keeping the rice from burning as it heats.
This part of the process takes more than an hour, so there's time for conversation and laughter among old friends who’ve know each other since college days.
Bibeau, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, has come here to process wild rice for about 40 years.
"It's fun. And that's why I used to be here every year. It was easier in a lawn chair with a cold beer,” he said with a smile. “But now I'm the guy who has to kind of make it work."
About five years ago, the owner of this operation died and left the setup to Bibeau.
"He probably couldn't think of anybody else who could afford to try to make this deal work,” said Bibeau. “And I'm not trying to make a profit out of it, because obviously I make a lot better living as an attorney. But I want to be able to pass this on to someone in the community to keep this alive“.
He’s not charging Hayes or Beltman to process their rice. They once helped him build a house, and this is part of the payback.
A passion to protect
Bibeau sees this rice processing plant being handed down to him as part of a responsibility he’s been given.
“And it makes me think that I've been somehow chosen by the wild rice or the creator in a way because I've been relatively faithful to the wild rice,” he said.
The lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on behalf of wild rice, or manoomin, failed when the White Earth Tribal Court of Appeals ruled the Tribal court didn’t have jurisdiction in the case.
But he expects to be back in court in a few months, trying again to protect wild rice which has disappeared in some parts of the region where it once flourished. Habitat destruction, declining water quality and climate change are all factors in the loss of many stands of wild rice.
"That happened in Green Bay, Wisconsin, it happened in a lot of Wisconsin. It happened in parts of Michigan, where the rice is gone,” Bibeau said. “It may be that only 50 percent of the natural wild rice that used to exist in Minnesota is still around."
Jigging with the Ford Ranchero
There’s a flurry of activity as the rice in the parcher is deemed ready for threshing. The heat has shrunk the grain and the hulls are loose.
Traditionally, parched rice would be placed in a shallow pit and people would dance on it, moving their moccasin-clad feet to break the hulls from the grain in a process called jigging.
Here, the process involves power and speed. The grain is scooped into a cylinder about three feet long. Rubber paddles spin inside at high speed, causing the thresher to dance on the concrete floor and emit clouds of fine, smoky dust.
The thresher is powered by a shaft attached to a decades-old Ford car engine on a steel frame outside the wall, with the transmission in second gear.
Bibeau explains the engine came from a 1960s Ford Ranchero that once sat next to the building.
“It looked much cooler with the front half of a Ranchero sitting on the other side of the building running it,” laughs Bibeau. “I mean, that was traditional. This looks industrial."
The engine does the job it’s been doing for decades, shaking the hulls from the rice kernels.
The last step is winnowing, separating the chaff from the kernels.
Hayes and Beltman slowly feed the threshed rice into a fanning mill, a device with a large fan that blows the chaff into a pile behind the building, while the clean grain drops into a wooden box.
The finished rice weighs about half as much as it did at the beginning of this two hour process.
Beltman is satisfied as he weighs the first batch of finished rice, “Fifty percent is a good return,” he explains.
Wild rice prices are substantially higher this year according to Bibeau. Last year he was paying pickers about three dollars a pound for freshly picked rice. Now he’s paying six dollars a pound.
The increase is partly because of a smaller crop, he said, and partly because of increased demand. A U.S. Department of Agriculture program to buy wild rice for food assistance programs has tribal governments paying more. Bibeau said he doesn't begrudge ricers the higher pay, but it means the finished product will cost more.
If he pays six dollars a pound and the rice shrinks by half in the processing, he needs at least twelve dollars a pound to break even.
"So rice this year could very well be 20 bucks a pound,” he said. “I've been selling it for 15 bucks a pound a long time. I'd be giving it away at 15 bucks a pound this year."
But wild rice is more about tradition and passion than profit, so Bibeau expects to be back here again next season processing another crop.