Saskatchewan growers handle nature's whims

For most Saskatchewan grain growers, rain is a welcome sight. Not so for Lynn Riese - to him, those drops from the sky might as well be acid, considering the damage they are doing to his crops.

Of course, there is nothing conventional about the type of agriculture Riese practices.

For more than two decades, Riese has been one of the world's top growers of naturally organic, lake-grown wild rice.

The nutty-tasting grain, which grows wild in shallow northern lakes and is harvested by air boats, is a valued specialty crop in markets across North America, Asia, and especially Europe, where health-conscious consumers look for it in grocery stores and restaurants under a variety of labels.

Carmen Pauls Orthner, Business Edge
Lynn Riese pilots his pontoon boat across Lake Meeyomoot.

While the finished rice is served on refined tables, however, the production of wild rice relies heavily on the whims of nature.

This past year, a cold, wet autumn, unusually heavy winter snowfalls and a rainy spring and summer have significantly raised the water levels in northern Saskatchewan's lakes and rivers - so much so that Riese and the nearly 200 other northern wild rice growers will be lucky to pull off 10 per cent of their normal crop.

After enjoying the financial benefits of bumper crops in 2002 and 2003, with yields more than 4.5 million pounds, the growers will have to cope with two consecutive years of crop failure.

While 2.5 million pounds is normal, last year's crop was 725,000 pounds, and Gerry Ivanochko, the Saskatchewan government's northern agriculture specialist, expects that the 2005 results will be even worse.

"This is just a complete disaster this year," says Riese.

Wild rice grows best in shallow, muddy-bottomed lakes, and in order for the crop to be healthy, the weather conditions must be dry enough and calm enough in August for the grain heads to mature, and for the long stems not to be uprooted by strong winds. Hail and heavy rain are killers. This year, everything went wrong.

Still, the only unusual thing is that this happened twice in a row.

Normally, says Saskatchewan Wild Rice Council president Bill Plunz, growers can expect a five-year cycle: Two decent years, a very good year, a bad year and a so-so year.

"We shouldn't be surprised by this (crop failure)," Plunz says.

In fact, it's one of the few things people in the wild-rice industry can count on, which is why Riese and Plunz - who manages the La Ronge Wild Rice Corp.'s processing plant - are among only a handful of players involved year-round.

Carmen Pauls Orthner, Business Edge
Employee David McKenzie shovels wild rice into a bag for shipment.

Aside from the weather, there are issues such as the shortness of the season and competition from cultivated "wild" rice grown in paddies in California and Minnesota.

Wild rice growers cannot get employment insurance - the three- to six-week harvesting season is too short for them to qualify - so most have other jobs to sustain themselves.

There is also no crop insurance plan in place despite years of debate at wild rice council meetings.

Plunz feels that many northern growers mistakenly see insurance as a grant program rather than as something they must personally invest in. "There's no money that can come from nothing," he says. "Until we get to that understanding, there's no particular coverage."

Despite the challenges, however, Riese has no plans to stop harvesting, selling and marketing his own rice and that of up to 60 other Saskatchewan growers.

Although he initially started as a hobby grower more than two decades ago, he frankly admits that he "can't seem to do anything small."

After a couple of years of growing rice in his own leased lakes, he decided to start marketing his inventory, and the business - now known as Riese's Canadian Lake Wild Rice - quickly grew.

In 1985, he sold his fried chicken franchise in La Ronge and began to attend international trade shows. At its height, Riese was selling 1.8 million pounds a year, mainly in the European markets.

In 1998, the situation changed as a new competitor, Northern Lights Foods, entered the market.

Northern Lights, which is wholly owned by the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, decided to start selling wild rice harvested on the band's leases, as well as rice grown by approximately 100 independent growers.

Carmen Pauls Orthner, Business Edge
Meeyomoot Lake is Lynn Riese's primary source of organic, lake-grown wild rice that the Saskatchewan producer delivers to a global market.

Stressing its status as an Aboriginal-owned company, Northern Lights moved into a number of Riese's European markets, selling both its own brand and under the labels of several European distributors.

"We wanted to get higher up the value chain," Northern Lights general manager Terry Helary says of the company's decision to go after the export markets.

The company's efforts were rewarded in 2001, when it was awarded a Canada Export Award - the same award won by Riese's company in the early 1990s.

The two companies are sometimes bitter rivals, but both have played a key role in building Saskatchewan's reputation as Canada's top producer of lake-grown wild rice.

Although it now grows abundantly in hundreds of local lakes, wild rice is not native to Saskatchewan.

It was first introduced in this province in the early 1930s as a means of encouraging population growth among muskrats - then a valuable commodity for trappers - by providing a new food source.

In the 1960s and 1970s, native growers began harvesting the crop (first using canoes and bumping the rice off the stalks with long sticks, and later using airboats) and selling it to U.S. buyers.

The provincial government recognized the economic potential of this crop and assisted with seeding programs to spread the rice into more northern lakes.

Initially, the government would only extend wild-rice leases to trappers, but the restrictions were lifted in 1981, allowing any interested northern resident to get involved in harvesting.

Since then, it has grown into an internationally recognized crop, with an annual wholesale value of $3 to $4 million, of which the growers take home approximately $2 million, says agricultural specialist Ivanochko.

Carmen Pauls Orthner, Business Edge
Lynn Riese takes a break from wild-rice gathering on his specially fitted pontoon boat.

From the cab of Riese's specially fitted pontoon boat, the process of harvesting looks deceptively simple.

The boat, which Riese's pilot Peter Basha jokingly refers to as an "oversized lawnmower," skims along the surface of Meeyomoot Lake, sliding through patches of long-stemmed rice, with the plastic mesh attached to the front knocking off the mature heads into a trough that Riese can raise or lower from his cab.

The standard for wild-rice boats is a flat-bottomed aluminum boat powered by a Rotax engine, the type normally used for snowmobiles or ultralight aircraft.

While these are the typical workhorses on northern Saskatchewan rice patches, Riese prefers his pontoon boats - they are more stable and thus safer and more comfortable for the driver, he says.

They also use less gas and the engines are cheaper - $1,500, including installation, as opposed to $7,000 for the Rotax engines used for "buzz boats," as Riese disdainfully calls them.

The air boats, which cost between $12,000 and $15,000, are a wild-rice grower's major capital investment.

Since the product is organic, there are no pesticides or fertilizers to purchase. There are only minimal seeding costs as well - once wild rice is introduced for the first time, as Riese has done on the bulk of his lakes, it will always come back.

"It dies every year, but enough seed falls down (into the lake)," explains Ivanochko. "With wild crops, there's always dormant seed ... and then if conditions are right again, it'll germinate. The patch will replenish itself."

While the plants do grow back, getting the best production off a patch requires both skill and patience.

Riese requires all of his harvesters to use global positioning system (GPS) units to monitor their speed; 10-11 miles per hour (mph; 16-18 km/h) is perfect for light rice, 12 mph (roughly 19 km/h) for heavy rice.

"But not 13 (mph), that's just too heavy. It knocks off too much of the green rice, the immature stuff, so it doesn't get big enough."

These tricks of the trade, combined with stubbornness and a passion for harvesting, are what have enabled Riese and other successful wild-rice growers to survive in this industry.

Organic certification has also given the local processing plants - one in La Ronge, the other in Denare Beach - and the growers and marketers an edge in marketing their product as compared to paddy rice.

Northern Lights, in particular, stresses the organic angle in their packaging and marketing, which it aims toward the health food market.

"People are becoming more and more health conscious," says Northern Lights' Helary. I think there's going to be more and more demand for our product, because it's certainly a healthy product, and it tastes very good."

Value-added products, such as wild-rice flour and pancake mixes, Riese's lentil-and-rice mixes and Northern Lights' pre-cooked rice, have all added to the marketing opportunities for rice.

But the core product for both companies is still the familiar hard, black rice, and as long as there's a demand for wild rice, Lynn Riese will be there to find buyers what they want.

"I like getting out there doing it," he says. "I feel responsible to my growers, the good ones, to find a home for their rice ... (but) I'd rather be harvesting."

(Carmen Pauls Orthner can be reached at orthner@businessedge.ca)