Backstory: Harvesting the caviar of grain

Across the lakes of Minnesota, the soft swish of wild rice against harvest boats is the sound of an ancient but fading tradition.

The wild rice harvest in Minnesota is ending, and Dave Starry is generally pleased. He and his nephew, Derek Starry, managed to shake loose about 4,000 pounds of rice into their flat-bottomed boat over the course of 20 days.

Still, they can't stop thinking about the rice that got away. It was a dry summer, and lake levels were low – meaning rice had lots of shallow water to flourish, but the ricers couldn't navigate the shallows to reach it.

"You could see it standing there and wanted it so bad you could taste it," says Dave, a third-generation logger who grew up ricing. "It was a bumper crop, but a lot we couldn't get to."

Not unlike natives of this region 2,500 years ago, Derek poles their canoelike boat through shallow water as Dave bends stalks over and beats them with two wooden rods called "flails" or "knockers" to shake the rice loose.

Ricers like the Starrys are a rarity these days. In the 1960s, when prices were high, it wasn't unusual for 15,000 people to buy permits from the state's Department of Natural Resources. This year, the DNR sold about 1,000.

It's exhausting, sweaty work, for little reward – about $1 a pound, the same price it fetched 40 years ago, before the rise of cultivated wild "paddy" rice pushed prices down. But wild rice is valuable to more than the harvesters, and it's been getting increasing focus lately from environmental groups in the state.

"There's a lot of pressure on wild rice habitat," says Rod Ustipak, who coordinates a rice management program run by the DNR and Ducks Unlimited. Vacationers, he says, want deep clear lakes, not realizing they're an ecological wasteland. They're also impossible for rice grass to grow in.

Mr. Ustipak – a ricer himself – spends much of his time monitoring shallow lakes that seem to be filling in, often from beaver dams or plugged-up culverts, which he or his management team unplug. At the same time, he works through the courts to get certain lakes protected as "game lakes," or to reset legal elevation water levels.

Wild rice, a different genus than traditional rice, is the basis of the food chain in Minnesota's lakes. Many waterfowl eat the kernels, which also decompose and feed invertebrates upon which other birds depend.

"If we didn't have the management program in place, that whole thing would be open water," says Ustipak, pointing out at a lake he monitors, teeming with coots, wood ducks, trumpeter swans, sora rails, and mergansers – and, of course, massive stands of wild rice. "There wouldn't be anything out there except a few odd ducks."

But while he mainly wants to conserve the wild rice habitat for such species, Ustipak hopes to encourage interest among human ricers as well. Ricing is the cultural center of many Ojibwe tribes in the state, and Ustipak sees it as a key to helping to convey the value of the ecosystems.

"You think of these people harvesting rice here 2,500 years ago – it was their lifeblood," he says as he paddles a canoe through Whitefish Lake. "We've gotten so far from the land." He guesses that only a couple hundred thousand pounds of rice will be harvested this year, far from the 3 million pounds often harvested in the '60s and '70s. And native communities worry that the ricing traditions are dying out among young people.

Still, Ustipak is gratified to see so much habitat returning – last year, 8,500 acres of Big Rice Lake were restored to productive habitat – and says that he appreciates the days he can get out and do his own ricing more each year.

"There's nothing else quite like it – the soft swish of rice on the boat, out there with your ricing partner," he says. "Now since there's so few of us, we value each other more."

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