California moves to capture growing wild-rice market

Last year California added another specialty crop to the 49 in which it already leads the nation's production - wild rice. While the 1981 harvest represented only some 13 percent of the nation's total ($18 million) wild-rice production, it indicates a bright future for the Western-grown gourmet food.

Wild rice, which is really the seed of an aquatic grass, has long been a high-demand product of cooking enthusiasts. Once harvested exclusively from canoes by Chippewa Indians on Minnesota lake marshes, it now is also garnered, processed, and packaged by small entrepreneurs in that region. And because cookery fadists have begun over the past few years to heavily salt fowl and other recipes with wild-rice additives, the retail price has soared to around $ 15 a pound.

Continuing heavy demand encouraged Minnesota processors to turn to commercial growing methods, mainly because increasing production from the Minnesota marshlands was not easy. Hand collection from canoes is regulated by law - seeds which fall into the water must be left for regeneration of the crop. And for environmental reasons commercial methods are not easily adaptable to the Minnesota lakes themselves.

So growers turned to other regions. One ''natural'' turned out to be California's Sacramento valley. Here, where the country's second-largest white-rice crop is grown, it was found that the dark, nut-f California growers say they have a way to go before their product will dominate the wild-rice market. The Sacramento valley's high summer heat and possible insect problems could retard development. Growers also point out that the Minnesota seed needs to adapt to Western soil and weather conditions.

The California wild rice - labeled as ''pure'' and now appearing in that state's supermarkets--has some slight variations from the native Midwestern product. ''But for taste, it offers the same nut-like full flavor'' says one West Coast culinary-school chef. ''And the only difference we see is in its appearance--shorter grain and thinner.''

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