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Wild Rice Brings Agriculture North

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1989      p16  
SIAP worker Murdock McKay examines some of last years crop.
SIAP worker Murdock McKay examines some of last years crop.
In the 1920's somebody imported wild rice into Saskatchewan and planted it for Muskrat food. It is not known how the Muskrats liked it, but it wasn't until the late 1960's that the industry really caught on and wild rice was grown in the La Ronge area.

Indian producers and in particular the La Ronge Band have been pioneers in the wild rice industry. Currently Indian producers are responsible for one third of the annual crop.

Last year was a record year with almost 2 million pounds of grain rice harvested province wide.

Wild rice grows in shallow sandy bottomed lakes to the south of the shield but to the north of the tree line. Farmers have tried growing wild rice in lakes, ponds, and dug-outs in the southern part of the province but have not succeeded. Once the crop has establishes itself, it requires little care and it recedes itself each year. Also no chemicals or fertilizers are allowed in northern lakes.

Wild rice can be damaged or its growth impeded by waterweeds and problems with muskrats, birds, and even moose have been reported. In 1988 a worm known in Manitoba and Ontario showed up in some rice plants harvested in Saskatchewan. Currently government specialists and scientists are working to identify the worm and find out where it came from and access the damage.

While the crop requires little attention as far as planting goes, harvesting is a different problem. Wild rice kernels mature in stages from the top of the head down. So the producer may have to harvest his crop as many as ten or twelve times a year. If the harvesting is not done on time, mature grains will fall into the water and be lost. There are two types of wild rice harvesters currently in use; one is a manufactured aluminium air boat with a collection tray on front. The boat moves through the field of rice and stalks land in the boat and the ripe grains fall inside. A cheaper wild rice harvester can be home built and it compares at $7,000 for a factory produced boat and $1,700 for a boat built by hand.

Last year was a record year with almost 2 million pounds of green rice harvested province wide.

Green rice is reduced by half after the water and hulls are removed by processing. The processing is done at La Ronge, at La Ronge Industries, a company that is 70% owned by five northern bands.

The rice is first allowed to sit to cure or mature. Then it is parched or heated and the moisture content is reduced. It is then put through another machine to remove the hulls. About ten pounds of green rice yield up five pounds of processed rice.

The final product is marketed through a system by the Saskatchewan Wild Rice Council which includes the Saskatchewan Indian Agricultural Program.

SIAP also markets wild rice through a subsidiary company SIAP Marketing. SIAP Marketing has successfully marketed wild rice in Canada, United States, Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East.

The price for wild rice has been dropping over the past few years. The drop in the price has been blamed on competition form the United States. "Paddy Wild Rice" has been developed by California and Minnesota producers. However rice grown in this matter contains chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers. It is therefore not organic.

The Public has little awareness of wild rice in Canada and even less is known about it outside the country. However, because of its organic nature and the fact that it is grown in northern Canada it will develop a world wide appeal.