Last summer, just before the wild-rice harvest, I drove east from the Fargo, North Dakota, airport into the rolling green landscape of northern Minnesota—Lake Wobegon country, and beautiful enough to make me want to stay much longer than I'd planned. I was headed for the offices of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), a Native American organization that has several goals. One is to halt all scientific research on wild rice. Another is to market true wild rice, harvested on lakes by hand and processed traditionally, as a way of helping members of the White Earth tribe—best known as Chippewa, now written as Ojibwe—support themselves over the winter. I was hoping to help harvest it myself, but I visited too early. This, I realized when I learned how very tricky the harvest process is, was perhaps for the best. My visit did bear fruit, though: not only a richer understanding of what seemed an inexplicable campaign but also a source for my favorite native grain.
True wild rice has always been an expensive, hard-to-find delicacy—and a genuine North American one, being native to the lakes of northern Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and Canada. The real thing became nearly impossible to find starting in the mid-1980s, when paddy-grown and industrially processed wild rice began to flood the market. Most of the Native Americans still hoping to sell wild rice were put out of business by much cheaper—and inferior-tasting—rice.
I enjoy and appreciate many kinds of Oryza sativa, the family of white and brown rices, but I would always choose wild rice over them. Its crunch, elegant length, and nutty and grainy though not domineering flavor are incomparable. An aquatic grass only distantly related to white rice, wild rice is also far more nutritious than white or even brown rice—much higher in protein and minerals, and lower in carbohydrates. Unfortunately, what most people think of as wild rice is far from wild, and its flavor is dull.
Everything about true wild rice is endangered: the indigenous varieties, the environments they need to flourish, the way of life that long drew Ojibwe families to lakeside camps in late summer for a harvest nourishing in many ways. The WELRP is fighting to save all of it. Several tenets of its fight are polemical and undeniably quixotic. Several products of it are practical, admirable, and very good with fish (wild, and preferably from a rice lake).
The timing of the fight is auspicious, because so much is left to save. The domestication of wild rice began extremely recently—a matter of decades ago (corn, by comparison, was domesticated thousands of years ago). Researchers started trying to tame wild rice in the early 1950s, but the real trouble, as the Ojibwe see it, began in 1977, when Minnesota named it the state grain. Perhaps millions of state-university dollars were put into research on strains of wild rice that could be cultivated commercially in paddies. The traits researchers bred for were not, of course, nutty flavor and firm yet lightly pliable texture—aesthetic concerns seldom play a role in industrial hybridization—but uniform maturation and ease of harvest.
Neither the summer ritual that brings families together nor the rice, which grows along lakesides and in some rivers, is amenable to industrialization. Hand-harvesters travel in pairs in canoes, beating the stalks with "ricing" poles to knock seeds onto the canoe bottoms. Ari Weinzweig, the author of the new Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, describes his lame and sweaty attempt to go ricing: trying to balance while pulling the stalks over the edge of the canoe, unsuccessfully dodging the sharp husks that another ricer told him "stick in you like spears" and can cause eye injuries. At the end of one hot, humid, buggy day he had a paltry bag of rice to show for his efforts, and a new appreciation for the endurance and skill of the tribal members who accompanied him. "I can assure you," he writes, "that whatever price you and I pay for wild rice, we've got the easy end of the deal."
The very rigor of ricing leads to satisfaction for the hardy hunter—a satisfaction not limited to Native Americans. "You go outside and have fun and get something out of it," James Meeker, a professor of biology and natural resources at Northland College, in Ashland, Wisconsin, who has studied wild rice, recently told me. "I'm tired, it's hot, and you get sunburned," he added. But he and his wife go ricing every summer, and keep the results of their work in glass jars in their basement, dipping into them when they want to eat well.
The growing cycle is yet more inefficient than the harvest. Agribusinesses, naturally, wanted to improve it. In any year as much as half the crop is lost to wind and gravity, as plants drop their ripe seeds to the water bottom; this reseeding is essential, because wild rice is an annual rather than a perennial crop. Some varieties, however, have evolved to hold their seed much longer; it is this "non-shattering" trait that industry sought, along with uniform ripening on a single stalk over just a few days rather than the usual ten to fourteen. In 1998 and 1999 Nor-Cal Wild Rice, a California company, won two patents related to producing sterile plants—a development that disturbed Ojibwe members.
Minnesota's investment paid off at first, at least for state agribusinesses. But by 1986 it had backfired. Domestication decimated those businesses as well as the Ojibwe harvesters they had displaced. The farmers of rice paddies created from California farmland and pastures, who were being paid by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit their production of ordinary rice, realized they could grow and harvest the newly domesticated wild rice just as easily. Their large paddies and extended growing season gave them an advantage over Minnesotans, and soon California was producing nearly twice as much rice as Minnesota. Today more than 95 percent of the country's wild rice is paddy-grown, with production centered in California. Wild rice appears in a range of products Minnesota could only have dreamed of in the early paddy days: upscale TV dinners, soup mixes, rice medleys with rices distinguishable solely by color and not by taste.
The White Earth activists I met in their makeshift, busy headquarters believe they are among the first North Americans to champion a cause dear to anti-globalists everywhere. Indigenous peoples have long lamented the incursion of agri-industry into rain forests, deserts, and other species-rich territories, arguing that native plants are the property of humanity and, specifically, of the people who use them to heal and nourish themselves. The WELRP holds that wild rice is a sacred gift, and that scientific intrusion is sacrilege. Wild rice—manoomin—is central to the Ojibwe creation stories. The Ojibwe believe that their prophecies directed them to settle "where the good berry grows on water." Manoomin meant sustenance, spiritual identity, and economic power.
For at least a hundred years Americans have been diminishing the environment suited to wild rice. Wild rice is a bellwether crop, one that demands certain conditions—specific water-level ranges; clear-flowing rather than sediment-filled water—and yet is resilient in the face of storms and floods. In fact it requires them, to drive away perennial competitors that could otherwise take hold in its habitat, as Donald Waller, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, explained to me. "Natural changes in water level from year to year are crucial to giving wild rice the edge," he said. Those changes have been artificially stabilized by dams, which as early as the nineteenth century began to reduce the prevalence of wild rice. Today motorboaters—politically potent lake lovers—insist on steady water levels, the better for their docks. Strong wakes frequently destroy nascent wild-rice plants that are invisible below the surface. Boats plough through the ribbonlike floating leaves that signal wild rice at its most critical and vulnerable stage, before the stalks grow upright. Motor blades trail foreign plant material that can take root and compete with the rice.