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Native grain’s yields improve with new varieties

The grain Native Americans called “manoomin” was named “wild rice” by early North American fur traders because it looks deceivingly like rice. Actually, wild rice is a tall, blooming water grass – the only cereal grain native to North America. Wild rice has grown naturally for hundreds of years throughout the Great Lakes region. Since the 1950s, it has been cultivated as an agricultural crop.

In northern Minnesota, many Ojibway still follow the traditional Native American practice of harvesting wild rice in September during the Wild Rice Moon. To be labeled “hand-harvested,” wild rice must be tapped into canoes with sticks. About 100,000 pounds are still harvested by hand from natural stands every year.

In 1952, James and Gerald Godward started cultivating their own wild rice in a one-acre flooded paddy near Merrifield, Minnesota. By 1958, they were growing 20 cultivated acres. The rice company, Uncle Ben, Inc. started contracting wild rice acreage in 1965, and by 1973, with better shatter-resistant varieties, Minnesota wild rice production had increased to 18,000 acres.

Production notes:

Cultivated wild rice is grown primarily on peat wetlands bordered by dikes to retain water. The grass, which grows to over 70 inches tall, has shallow roots and hollow stems. Wild rice matures in about 120 days.

Annual U.S. wild rice production is generally 8 to 12 million finished pounds, but some years it has exceeded 23 million pounds. Minnesota produces 4.5 to 6 million finished pounds of wild rice annually on about 17,000 acres. Although Minnesota has twice the acreage, California produces the same amount or more because yields are higher. However, University of Minnesota researchers have developed a new disease-resistant variety that increases yields by 40 percent and may keep Minnesota growers competitive with California.

Canada is the only other major competitor with about 1.7 million finished pounds. Almost all Canadian wild rice comes from natural stands or lakes seeded to wild rice, harvested by air boats with a front-mounted catcher. In North America, wild rice is also grown as a field crop in Idaho, Wisconsin and Oregon. Overseas, Hungary and Australia produce small quantities.

Costs are highest the first year of wild rice cultivation; beside paddy construction expense, seeding is about $80 an acre. Because wild rice self-sows, seed costs are eliminated in subsequent years, but there are thinning and fertilizer expenses. After several years, losses from seed shattering increases and growers may fallow their paddies to plant new shatter-resistant varieties.

An acre of wild rice yields about 725 pounds of unprocessed or 290 finished pounds, as 60 percent of the weight is reduced during drying and processing. Traditional wild rice shatters easily and yields only 150 to 200 pounds per acre. Improved, non-shattering types can yield as much as1500 pounds per acre. Wild rice sells for about 60 cents per unprocessed pound, and producers can net about $270 per acre.

North America is the world’s primary wild rice supplier, with 14 major processing plants – six in Minnesota, four in California and four in Canada. Most Minnesota cultivated wild rice is purchased by Riviana Foods, Inc., which owns Gourmet House Wild Rice.

When wild rice blends were introduced, demand grew rapidly – by 52 percent from 1978 to 1984. Although blends usually contain only 15 percent wild rice, they make up two-third of wild rice sales.

Functional values:

Wild rice protein has a higher concentration of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine than most other cereal grains, and the basic amino acid balance is slightly better than oats. Wild rice is also a good source of riboflavin, niacin, copper, zinc, folate and dietary fiber. Very few nutrients are lost during wild rice processing. Because of its nutritional benefits, wild rice may be added to other products to boost functional attributes.

Areas of opportunity:

Quick-cooking wild rice: A quick-cooking frozen wild rice product was developed by AURI in 1995 and a frozen, pre-cooked wild rice is currently available in supermarkets. Health foods: Cooked wild rice pieces could be added to sports and nutritional bars – a growth market.

Specialty extruded pellets: can be used in snacks, granola, dressing, soups and other health food products.

Cosmetics: A Minnesota company is using wild rice as an exfoliant and as a protein additive in skin care products.

European export markets: Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain present export opportunities.

Note: Some of the information in this summary comes from the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council and Erv Oelke, professor meritus, U of M department of agronomy and plant genetics.