Wild rice has a rich cultural history as a nutritious food that helped sustain Native American families through cold Minnesota winters. Generations later, this aquatic grass remains a popular food across the Great Lakes region. Although wild rice grows in over 50% of Minnesota, most of production is in central to northern Minnesota. We talked with Minnesota Grown member Scott Burns from Scenic Waters Wild Rice Company in Blackduck about his wild rice gathering process and the regulations around harvesting naturally-sown wild rice, which he refers to as the “crop that nature provides.”
The wild rice harvesting season is from August 15 to September 30. This allows time for naturally-sown wild rice to fall from the stems. Whether naturally-sown or cultivated, wild rice beds are in shallow lakes, rivers, or streams, with ideal depths of one to three feet. The amount of wild rice harvested highly depends on water level, flow, and quality. Burns added that harvest timing will vary based on weather, soil conditions, and water temperature. For example, wild rice in a sandy soil with a hot summer will ripen much faster than cool temperatures and large amounts of rain. Firm rice, along with a dark color at the head of the crop, is the easiest way to check if wild rice is ready to harvest.
Once the wild rice is ready to harvest, Burns shifts through the water in a canoe using a process called polling to gather the rice. It is easiest with two people, one to use balance and strength to move the canoe via the 16-foot forked pole, and the other to use the knockers, or flails, to gather the kernels of the rice. “After the wild rice is collected, it is parched, or slow roasted, using propane or wood at a constant temperature for 60 to 90 minutes,” says Burns. The drying process will remove nearly all the water within the kernel, decreasing the weight by 50%. Next, the rice goes through a rotating threshing machine to remove the kernel from the husk. Finally, a gravity table separates the chaff and other debris from the kernel.
“The term ‘hand-harvested’ refers to the gathering process,” says Burns. Burns’ gathering style is by hand and his processing method is mechanized. Traditional hand-processing of wild rice includes air-drying the harvested rice and parching it over a fire. It is then threshed by stomping on the rice to remove the kernel from the husk. Lastly, the rice is winnowed to remove the husks and chaff by flipping the rice out of a basket and into the air.
Anyone can harvest wild rice on non-restricted public lands. However, a season or one-day license must be purchased. The license funds help support the management of lakes and wildlife habitats. In addition, the Minnesota DNR has requirements to ensure the protection of wild rice habitat. The watercraft, push poles, and flails must meet measurement regulations. For example, the watercraft cannot exceed 18 feet in length or 36 inches in width; the push pole’s tines must be less than 12 inches in length; the flails must be less than 30 inches long and weigh no more than one pound. For those new to wild rice harvesting, or ricing, it may be helpful to partner with someone experienced to learn the techniques.
“The hand-harvesting process takes a lot of work and energy,” says Burns. “If you want the product you love to [be around for years to come], support those who have time invested into the product and provide a quality, local product.”
The Minnesota Grown Directory has nine members who sell Minnesota Grown wild rice. To learn more about harvesting, we recommend this detailed blog from Minnesota DNR’s Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine by an experienced wild rice harvester, Annette Dray Drewes. Thank you Scott Burns for your insight on wild rice harvesting.