Growing cultivated wild rice can be a high-stakes gamble, says Peter Imle, advocate for wild rice production and a farmer in northern Minnesota. A grass like wheat, barley and rye, wild rice is more prone to shattering from weather damage.
Minnesota is cutting edge of cultivated wild rice
In the spring, when the prairie ground is covered with water and wild rice pokes up from
cultivated paddies, it feels like you are walking through Thailand or Vietnam rather than Minnesota. Yet once the diked paddies are drained in preparation for harvest, the rice appears northern indeed, much like a field of prairie grass with its heads of grain rippling in the breeze.
The genesis of cultivated wild rice took place just decades ago in central and northern Minnesota. Today, growers there lead the nation in taming this wild crop for profit.
Peter Imle heard the call of the wild in 2004 and came home to farm wild rice on his family’s land near Gonvick, Minn. He is an advocate for the often misunderstood crop and currently serves on the board of the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council.
"Growing rice may not seem like a high-stakes gamble, but it is," Imle says. When everything goes right, he adds, cultivated wild rice can generate more profit per acre than row crops. But when production goes even slightly wrong, it can destroy profits for the year.
Despite advances in cultivated wild rice varieties since the industry emerged in the 1960s, the crop is still more shatter-prone than other small grains. Like wheat, barley and rye, it is a grass. High winds can cause yield losses of 25% to 40%.
Marketing risks are also monstrous. Wild rice is a gourmet food, with demand largely determined by the vagaries of the global economy, even more so than corn, soybeans and wheat. There are no hedging tools available; it is all grown on contract, with prices normally set six to eight months prior to the August harvest.
"Wild rice prices can be more volatile than other crops; take the price variability in commodity markets but remove the risk management tools," Imle says. For 2005 to 2010, market prices gyrated from 95¢ per pound to $2 per pound and back again.
The Rush of Risk. Some called cultivated wild rice "black gold" in the early days of the crop, and its history sounds a bit like that of the Gold Rush. A number of innovators such as the Godward brothers in Aitkin County, Minn., took the plunge after wondering if wild rice could be grown in paddies similar to those of its distant cousin, white rice, in Asia. They were the first to develop wild rice paddies, in 1950 to 1951. The Godwards succeeded, creating a brand new industry—the latest wild crop to be tamed.
What caused the industry to explode, however, was the development of a wild and white rice blend developed by Mars Inc.’s Uncle Ben’s brand in the 1960s. Demand for the rice far outstripped supply and Uncle Ben’s began contracting with growers, paying as much as $8 per pound for processed wild rice. "When news of this price got out, the rush was on. Paddies were being developed everywhere," says Ervin Oelke, a University of Minnesota agronomist who wrote the book Saga of the Grain. Today, 80% of wild rice is used in blends.
"Early growers were adventurous enough to try something different," says John Gunvalson of Trail, Minn., who began growing wild rice in 1971 in a partnership with Imle’s father, Paul. He says that one thing growers had in common was their spirit of adventure, noting that a high percentage of these innovators flew airplanes. Today, custom airplane applicators play a key role in wild rice production; urea is put on with planes in July, after the fields are flooded.
Not only has wild rice brought industry to land that was not being farmed—that in fact was a wasteland as late as 1960—but it eventually brought in other crops as well, due to the land being improved and leading the way for agricultural development.
In the mid-2000s, demand was increasing faster than production, creating high prices. While U.S. demand was growing, wild rice use was expanding even more rapidly in Europe, Imle says.
|An early adopter of wild rice in 1971, John Gunvalson, Trail, Minn., has grown the grass every year since. He rotates it with soybeans, potatoes and wheat.
"Rice was in short supply and production ramped up, both in Minnesota and California," he adds. Those two states account for 90% of wild rice production, each producing about 50% of the nation’s total. The U.S. produces 95% of global wild rice. Moreover, cultivated wild rice production far exceeds lake-grown wild rice in Minnesota, totaling 6 million pounds versus 250,000 lb.
Big Crash in 2008. With such strong prices in 2005, production began rapidly increasing, reaching 60% more cultivated wild rice acreage by 2008, the same time that yields increased. Then one of the biggest crashes in the history of wild rice markets occurred as the global recession hit. After exports of U.S. wild rice more than doubled in the early part of the decade, demand turned around, falling 44% from 2008 to 2009.
- January 2012