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How farmers tame wild rice
Sutter County rice farmer Chris McKenzie can remember when the first seeds of commercial wild rice were sown in California. Companies came to the Golden State to carve out a national product, instead of one grown only in Minnesota, and now dominate two-thirds of the national market.
"The market grew and we grew with it," McKenzie said.
Harvest finishes for the season this week, as combines slosh through fields and birds follow hungrily behind. The machines separate seeds from straw and eventually spill flowing streams of long skinny grains into the grain tank.
This year's crop is lighter because it was so hot during the peak growing season, McKenzie said. But harvest is still ample enough to supply the market, which is recovering from a wild grain glut after buyers' ongoing pleas of "We need more rice."
A few farmers returned to white rice, but some like McKenzie and Sutter County rice farmer Jack De Wit remain committed for the long haul, despite market challenges.
De Wit has farmed wild rice since 1983, when he turned to it as an alternate from his conventional crop. In recent years, he has farmed as few as 400 or as many as 4,000 acres, depending on his needs.
Wild rice is usually planted last and harvested first, he said, taking just 90 days to reach maturity.
"It happens so quick," De Wit said. "It
lays under water, under water, under
water, you go fishing for three days and it's standing up. You go away a few weeks later and it's starting to flower."
Once harvested, most wild rice heads to Gibbs Wild Rice in Live Oak or Indian Harvest in Colusa, where the rice is cured in giant piles until it starts to heat and ferment. Then, it is spread onto concrete decks and sprinkled into wind rows to start to dry.
At just the right point, it's roasted to establish flavor and dry the outer hull. The final step removes outer husks to reveal skinny black gems inside.
Today, California wild rice ranges from 12,000 to 20,000 acres. A third of the crop is grown in the state's northeastern corner and the rest is in the Central Valley.
Wild rice was pioneered in California by Yuba City farmer Vince Vanderford, who brought an ice chest of wild rice seed from Minnesota in 1972. Several other farmers soon tried their hand at the crop and California now harvests an estimated 11 million pounds — making the state the largest producer of wild rice in the world.
"California's climate is just flat better than Minnesota," McKenzie said. "We have a better growing season and rice can grow to maturity before the snow starts to fly. Maturity makes rice bigger, blacker and more flavorful."
But it has not been easy.
Farmers must anticipate market demand a year in advance, planting this year's crop to produce seeds for next year, which limits flexibility, De Wit said. To prevent premature sprouting, farmers must "mimic the bottom of a Minnesota lake in the winter," immersing seeds in water and storing them at 32 degrees in commercial refrigeration for up to eight months — a costly expense.
Another challenge continues to be changing consumers' perception that wild rice is rough and dry, McKenzie said, and teaching them to cook it properly by quadrupling the water and cooking time.
"When it's cooked, those nice black kernels pop open just like a hot dog," he said. "You want it to pop open to get the texture, and the flavor of the rice will be really good. The more you cook it, it will flip up like shavings ... This is one of those foods, you eat it and you can tell, this is good for me."
Wild rice is good for wildlife, too, De Wit said. On Wednesday, combines churned tracks through his few remaining fields, followed by hordes of ibis, egrets and herons enjoying a feast of fish, frogs and other critters.
Most wild rice is harvested when fields are wet, to reduce the number of fragile seeds that fall to the ground at the slightest breeze or touch, and leaving a wealth of food and habitat in the harvesters' wake.
"The birds love it," De Wit said, as the varied species poked long beaks into the water.
Rice farmers love it, too, he said, as there is no sight quite as nice as the end of the growing season.
"Harvest time is fun," he said. "Payday comes once a year — you don't want to miss it, and you better enjoy it."