Wild rice farming is technically agricultural production, but it couldn’t be more different from, say, growing potatoes or corn. No one knows this better than Tracy Wheeler-Anderson, who owns the organic wild rice company Naosap Harvest based in Cranberry Portage, MB, 700 km northwest of Winnipeg. Filling out the government’s annual farm survey, for example, presents unique difficulties.
“So many questions are hard to answer. How many acres are there on our ‘farm’, for example, when we’re harvesting rice from lakes,” she laughs. Further complicating matters, wild rice—which isn’t technically “rice” at all but a grass plant grown in shallow water—is harvested from bays, where yearly water levels dictate “acreage” and yield.
The lakes themselves can’t be owned by wild rice farmers but must be leased annually from the government, with a maximum of eight lakes allotted to an individual.
Tracy’s husband, Bob Anderson, started farming wild rice in the early 1980s with his father and brothers. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Tracy started Naosap Harvest so the family could market their rice directly. Bob and his two brothers each hold leases for lakes, making their operation comparatively large, and valuable—the government has capped leases on northern lakes and no new leases are currently available.
“During the 1980s and 90s, Bob and his brothers sold the majority of their green wild rice to companies in the United States,” she explains. “My husband and I decided that we should try to market the wild rice ourselves. Because he was in business with his brothers, I created my own company.” She took the company’s name from Naosap Lake, the first lake Bob leased. In Cree, “naosap” means “fourteen.”
Tracy, who was a full-time schoolteacher until she retired this year, dove headfirst into the project. “I set up a website, sent out countless emails and cold-called many, many companies and restaurants,” she says. “I started to have a social media presence and companies began to seek us out.”
Although Tracy handles the company’s marketing and outreach, the entire family helps with the grunt work—Bob and his two brothers, Tracy and their three children (Beth, 17, and Sarah and Wesley, both 15).
And wild rice production involves a lot of grunt work. “It’s very demanding. It’s hard labour, it’s not as mechanized as other farming,” she says. “It hasn’t changed a whole lot in the 30 years since wild rice really began to be commercially grown.”
Some of the Naosap Harvest lakes are only reached via old logging roads and a single trail to pull air boats in for harvest. Air boats make up to three passes over each wild rice bay to collect ripe grains.
The freshly harvested wild rice is bagged by hand. It’s hot, prickly work, as the grains have a barbed end that can get stuck in clothes and irritate skin. The harvested crop is then freighted to shore and carried out on quads.
Tracy recently calculated the number of times a single lot of wild rice is handled before it reaches the consumer: 15. “It’s all manual labour. That’s why it costs what it does,” she says. “There aren’t too many farming operations that are this hands-on, especially with our lakes that are so isolated. The rice is worth every penny that people pay for it.”
Most wild rice production in northern Manitoba could be considered organic, but isn’t certified due to demanding paperwork and the costs involved with the certification process, says Tracy. But Naosap Harvest has found a niche market for its lake-grown wild rice because of its organic certification. The company boasts customers in Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam and Ireland, as well as the United States and Canada.
Organic certification requirements span every aspect of wild rice production, from record keeping to harvest, processing, trucking and storage. To maintain their certification, Naosap Harvest pays for an inspector to fly over their lakes and review their paperwork every year.
Tracy says her company has gone above and beyond the requirements; for example, every year she renews her food-handling certificate so she can better supervise rice bagging. The company also stores rice in sea cans (sealed shipping containers) to keep rodents out.
Manitoba Conservation also closely monitors wild rice producers to ensure minimal disturbance to pristine northern lakes. The purity of Naosap Harvest’s product owes as much to these beautiful lakes as it does to the Andersons’ care in cultivating, processing and shipping it.
Lake-grown wild rice is substantively different from wild rice grown in rice paddies in California and elsewhere, says Tracy: that rice is chemically desiccated in the fall to ensure ripening occurs all at once. By contrast, organic, lake-grown wild rice naturally ripens from the top of the plant down. Lake rice, once processed, is black, long and stalky—qualities that are prized by international customers.
Wild rice production presents lots of unusual challenges beyond hard physical labour. Most producers must hold other jobs, as wild rice production keeps them busy for only two and a half months per year (Bob Anderson also works in logging and construction).
High costs present another challenge. There are no wild rice processing facilities in northern Manitoba. As soon as it’s bagged, the rice is trucked out to the Precambrian Wild Rice processing plant in Denare Beach, northern Saskatchewan, where it’s heated and dried. There is little competition for shipping from northern communities, so costs remain very high when it comes to transporting the final product to domestic and international customers.
The biggest challenge of all is the unpredictability of Mother Nature, says Tracy, a claim that echoes every agricultural producer.
But, unlike most other Manitoba crops, no insurance is available for wild rice in the province, although it is in Saskatchewan. This makes the business risky, especially during disastrous years such as this one. “Most of our rice was flooded out, which sounds weird for a crop that grows in water, but if water levels get too high the crop can’t survive. This year is going to be the worst year we’ve ever had,” says Tracy.
Too much water and the plants drown; not enough and the plants can’t flourish. Not enough heat, the plants can’t mature. Too much wind, and the mature grain will fall off the plants, says Tracy.
Like most specialty crops, wild rice benefits from knowledge gained over years of experience, and a great deal of patience when conditions aren’t ideal. But wild rice is rewarding in unique ways. Once initially seeded, and given the right conditions, it largely takes care of itself. “As the seeds mature, many fall from the plant and seed for the next year,” says Tracy. “Nothing is added to our lakes to aid in pest or weed control. We do make a lot ducks very happy!”
There are few official resources for wild rice producers in the province, and the Wheeler-Andersons are still waiting for the creation of a Manitoba wild rice council. When she started her business, her learning curve was “steep,” says Tracy. In many ways, she says, wild rice production is “an old boys’ club,” with most producers still in the game 30 years on.
But Tracy remains undaunted by all these challenges. “We’re holding our own and I’m proud of what our little company has become,” she says.
And even after all these years championing wild rice, she still isn’t tired of it. “We eat it almost every day,” she says.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer and editor.
Canadian Organic Wild Rice Soup
“My favourite thing about wild rice is its versatility,” says Tracy Wheeler-Anderson, owner of Naosap Harvest wild rice company. “I use it in soups, salads, as a side dish, in casseroles, in desserts and for breakfast, and use the flour as a coating for fish and in bread and buns,” she says. “This soup is my most requested recipe.”
1 lb bacon, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1½ c cooked Naosap Harvest Certified Organic wild rice (approx. ¾ cups uncooked)
1 can cream of mushroom or cream of potato soup
5 c milk
1 lb grated sharp cheddar cheese
Variation: Substitute sausage for the bacon
Cook wild rice: add approximately ¾ cup uncooked wild rice to about 3 cups of boiling water. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 40-50 minutes or until kernels puff. Drain excess water. Do not overcook.
In large pot, fry bacon until crisp. Cook onion in bacon drippings.
Add soup, milk, and cheese, and cook until cheese is melted, adding the cooked wild rice near the end. Season to preference. Enjoy!