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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 1: Afternoon — Mother Nature’s “Sacred Gift”

Story Highlights
  • Processing wild rice begins with parching and moves through screening (for rocks, sand and stones), separating (by rice grade), and then bagging and weighing.
  • It takes two to three hours to process a batch of wild rice.
  • About 12.5 million pounds of wild rice are grown and processed each year in the United States, compared to half a million pounds harvested from the nation's rivers and lakes.
  • California is the leading producer of wild rice, followed by Minnesota.

By Tom Eisenhart

In the afternoon of the first day of our journey, we are traveling to McGregor, Minnesota to meet Dale Green, a traditional leader from the Rice Lake band of Anishinabe, part of the Ojibwe Nation. Dale has a wild rice processing facility a few miles outside of McGregor.

Turning off a gravel road, a small yellow sign advertises "MANOOMIN — 100% Natural Wild Rice HAND HARVESTED by the Ojibwe Nation." Dale's facility is comprised of two connected, low gray buildings. His wife Brenda is inside one, weighing and sealing bags of wild rice. Apparently, there has been a miscommunication, because Dale is in Brainerd eating lunch with friends.

Since it will be few hours before he returns, Brenda gives us directions to Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where she says we may see rice being harvested. But, it's nearing the end of the harvesting season, which typically begins in August. When we arrive at Rice Lake, there's no one on the water.

I climb a two-story observation tower to get a good look at the lake. Before me is a vast expanse of marshy grasses in shades of green, brown and yellow. Interspersed with the grasses are large patches of open water.

It must be tiresome for the Native American ricers, who work two to a boat in traditional fashion, to push their way through the tall grasses. The poler carefully maneuvers from the back while a 'knocker' uses two boards to tap ripe rice from the stalk into the boat. On a good day, a team of ricers can harvest 200 to 300 pounds.

Bounty for People and Wildlife

Today, the lake is still. The only sounds are the steady hum of insects punctuated by the rise and fall of a chorus of calls from what must be thousands of geese and ducks. They are stopping over here to fatten up on the remains of wild rice while resting up for their fall migration. As the refuge is closed to the hunting of ducks, geese and most other migratory birds, this is a particularly good place to find respite.

We return to Dale's rice processing facility to find him there. Dale has lived in this area most his 78 years. At the age of 12, he began participating in the rice harvest, always as a knocker. He remembers camping with his family along the shores of Rice Lake in tar paper shacks his band built. During the day, they harvested the rice and put it in bins to dry. At night, they would parch the rice on racks over fire.

Rice processing is still a family affair for the Greens, though an assortment of machines now help get the job done.

"It's always been my dream to do this, to provide this as a service to the community," he tells me. "It's never been a money maker."

Honoring Traditional Ways

Dale emphasizes that wild rice is very sacred to the people of his band. It is a "sacred gift from mother nature's garden" and has importance as a food and for ceremonial purposes. During the harvest, "we give thanks every day as we gather."

While Dale can't say enough about the health benefits and better taste of wild rice, he's more somber about its future and in turn, his band.

Where there were once 500 boats harvesting on Rice Lake, now it's more typical to see 40 or less during the season. Dale points to competition from commercially grown paddy rice and fewer of the younger generation becoming ricers as troubling trends. And he explains that threats like sedimentation, agricultural runoff and land use changes affecting flow of waters into lakes contribute to the decline of wild rice.

Getting more people to eat wild rice is obviously important, too. As we prepare to leave, Dale turns to his son and asks him to find us samples of wild rice they've packaged. He hands me a small bag and runs through a list of ways it can be prepared and served. I'm anxious to give it a try when I return home to see what I’ve been missing.

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