Wild Rice

Minnesota’s Ancient Grain

WRITTEN BY ALICIA CHAPMAN 

Flailer, Dave Friedl with a canoe full of rice grains. (Photo by Erik Thorson)

ACCORDING TO OJIBWE PROPHECY, tribes were told to move west until they found the land where food grows on water. When they came across wild rice, it was their sign that they were meant to stay. For many Native American cultures where Manoomin (Ma-no-min), also known as wild rice, is prevalent, the food is considered a sacred gift from their Creator.

Manoomin is a part of our way of life,” said Kelly Applegate, director of resource management for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “There is no other plant that we are closer to. It’s a very sacred plant for us. It ties into the culture of why we settled in the area we did. It’s our place marker for where we call home.” 

Before harvest, the Ojibwe community prepares in a cultural way to honor and respect the resource, their people, and the traditions. The band has rice chiefs who are experts on wild rice.

“We have elders in our community who can look at the grains of rice and recognize what body of water it was found in,” Applegate said. “Rice is genetically unique to the bodies of water where it was grown.”

Since wild rice is so important to the Mille Lacs Band, they work with other entities, like the Minnesota DNR, to help protect it.

“It’s something we are really close to, and we want to see that forever,” Applegate said.

Ann Geisen, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) wildlife lake specialist, agreed. 

Seed heads. (Photo courtesy of Minnestoa DNR – Shallow Lakes Program)

“Wild rice is precious,” Geisen said. “Years ago, back in the 50s and 60s, it was a special commodity. The only ways to get it was to harvest it yourself or to get it as a gift. It was not really widespread. Harvesting was a big deal because you couldn’t get it at a grocery store.”

In the 50s and 60s, there were approximately 10,000 wild rice licenses sold each year. The demand has died down now that there are wild rice farmers who grow and harvest the sacred grain. It has become much more widespread and is now found in most grocery stores. There are currently only 1,000 to 1,500 wild rice harvesting licenses sold each year. 

While called rice, wild rice is actually a grain, similar to quinoa and flaxseed. This means that it has more protein, minerals, and B vitamins than rice. It is also low in fat and gluten-free. In 1977, the state of Minnesota recognized wild rice as the state grain.

Minnesota has more acres of wild rice than any other state in the country. Acreage varies from year to year, but the state has a minimum of 64,328 aces of wild rice when growing conditions are favorable. 

Geisen started harvesting wild rice four years ago. As part of her job with the MN DNR, she learned about wild rice and talked to many harvesters, which is what made her decide to give it a try. 

The majority of people who harvest wild rice are introduced to the activity from a friend or family member. Every year, approximately 700,000 pounds of wild rice is collected in Minnesota.

Applegate recommends that new harvesters do some research before they start harvesting. It’s not just the grain that is sacred, the bottom of the lake bed is also sacred, so it’s important to be gentle and not disturb this area.

In general, there are two roles when harvesting wild rice, which is why having a harvesting partner is helpful. 

“You can harvest wild rice by yourself, but it’s easier with two people,” Geisen said. 

One of the harvesters sits at the front of the boat with flails, which are basically wooden sticks. This person’s job is to “flail” or knock wild rice into the canoe. 

The person in the back of the boat uses a pole to push along the bottom of the lake. They also steer the canoe towards the ripe wild rice. Push poles can be purchased in the waterfowl hunting section at most sporting goods stores. Some harvesters make their own push poles by buying a curtain rod and attaching a duckbill to the end of it that goes into the water.

The harvesters work together to gather wild rice.

“When the seed is ripe, it will fall off with a gentle knocking,” said Geisen. “If you beat too hard on the plant trying to get seeds, it damages the plant, and the rest of the seeds won’t get ripe.”

Most harvesting teams have set roles, but when Geisen started, she and her friend took turns at the two positions. Geisen found she enjoyed push pulling, and her friend preferred flailing. For new harvesters, it’s recommended people try both roles to get a feel for it. 

Before the wild rice season, harvesters can call their area wildlife office and get the projected report for wild rice. They can also suggest which lakes are best to try.

While there are many great wild rice lakes across Minnesota, the majority is harvested within Aitkin, St. Louis, Itasca, Crow Wing, and Cass Counties. These counties are known as the “heart of wild rice,” said Geisen.

The grain grows in the shallow water of lakes and streams. The prime water depth is between six and eighteen inches, but wild rice can grow in water up to four feet. Leech Lake is a deep lake, but has shallow bays where wild rice is prevalent. 

Even with a license, there is no wild rice harvesting within tribal reservation boundaries, unless you are a tribal member or own property within that reservation. Some lakes are partially within tribal reservations, so it’s essential to be aware of those borders.

The wild rice harvesting season is from August 15 to September 30. Each day, harvesting is open from 9 a.m. to
3 p.m.

Experienced harvesters can paddle away with 300 pounds of wild rice in a day. On a lake with abundant ripe wild rice, beginners could get between 50 to 60 pounds per day.

“What to do with the rice next can be a little bit challenging,” said Geisen. “To be eaten, the rice needs to
be processed.”

There are only a few places to process wild rice. The MN DNR keeps a list of the processors and their guidelines. Some won’t process batches less than 300 pounds. For a
new harvester, this could be a challenge. 

There are ways to process rice at home, and some harvesters have gotten creative. Geisen recommends searching YouTube to see how other people do it. 

“Harvesting is a lot of work,” Applegate said. “There’s a
lot of steps to preparing the rice. We have to whittle it, parch it, prepare it for storage, and weigh it out. It’s a little more involved. But when our ancestors did that—and we do it a lot of the same way—that staple would get them through winter. Wild Rice is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and that would sustain our people.”

For Minnesota residents, there are two types of wild rice harvesting licenses one can purchase—either a day pass or season pass. Someone who is out of state can only purchase day passes. If they want to harvest more than one day, they’ll have to buy a new day pass for every day they collect. The licenses can be found on the MN DNR website with the hunting and fishing licenses.

There are many reasons Geisen continues to harvest wild rice and recommends that others try it. 

“I love being out in the middle of the rice,” she said. “You see things you don’t normally get to see. There are different plants and different critters.”

Her favorite animal she has spotted is a secretive marsh bird called the “Sora Rail.” These birds are more often heard than seen. But, in the dense wild rice marshes, Geisen has had multiple Sora Rail sightings. 

Harvesting wild rice is also a time to connect with your harvesting partner. Geisen likes to spend the time talking with her friend while they slide across the water. And then, there’s the gathering of the wild rice itself. 

“It’s the same sense of pride as when I’m eating venison from a deer I shot,” Geisen said. “I went into the wild and got food for myself.”

After the harvesting is done, Geisen enjoys experimenting with new wild rice recipes. One of her favorite go-to recipes is wild rice pilaf. She enjoys sharing recipes with other harvesters and learning about their tips and tricks when harvesting the unique Minnesota grain.  

Popular Locations to Harvest Wild Rice:

  • Mallard Lake (Aitkin County)
  • Flowage Lake (Aitkin County)
  • Big Sandy Lake (Aitkin County)
  • Natures Lake & Popple River (Itasca County)
  • Mississippi River (Crow Wing County)
  • Moose Lake (Aitkin County)
  • Mississippi River (Itasca County)
  • Breda (St. Louis County)
  • Vermillion River (Itasca County)
  • Big Rice Lake (St. Louis County)

When is the wild rice harvesting season? August 15 to September 30. Each day, the harvest is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

How much is a one-day license to harvest wild rice? $15 for Minnesota residents and $30 for non-residents.

Where do the fees for harvesting wild rice go? All the fees go right back into managing wild rice lakes and streams. 

Wild Rice Pilaf

  • 2 cups uncooked wild rice
  • 1 Tbsp butter or margarine
  • 2 (14-ounce) cans ready-to-serve chicken broth
  • ½ cup of water
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp dried rosemary leaves
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 (8-ounce) packages of fresh, sliced mushrooms
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion

Directions:

  1. Wash the wild rice under running water. 
  2. Put the butter, chicken broth, water, salt, pepper, and rosemary in a heavy saucepan or pot. Bring the mixture to a boil. 
  3. Add the wild rice and return to a boil. 
  4. Reduce heat and simmer until the rice is tender, about 35–45 minutes.
  5. When the rice has about 15 minutes left to cook, heat a large skillet and add vegetable oil. 
  6. Add the mushrooms and onions to the skillet, and sauté until tender, stirring occasionally.
  7. When the rice is done, add the mushroom-onion mixture and
    the cranberries. 
  8. Mix thoroughly and enjoy!