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California Wild rice

In 25 years, our state has become the world's largest producer of wild rice. Parboiled and parched, we've got the nutty grain.

November 10, 1999|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wild rice traditionally evokes images of Native Americans flailing grain into canoes on Minnesota lakes. But the world's largest wild rice field actually is on a ranch in Modoc County, Calif., where antelope outnumber people.

In the last quarter-century California's cultivated wild rice industry has outgrown Minnesota's to dominate production. And although none of California's rice is hand-harvested from lakes, it has a romance of its own among the fields, which range from the Sacramento Valley to the extreme northeast corner of the state--an area closer to Canada than to Los Angeles.

In fact, most wild rice isn't really wild, any more than it's really rice. The smoky, nutty grain is the seed of an aquatic grass, Zizania palustris, only distantly related to regular rice, Oryza sativa. It's native to the lakes and streams of the Upper Midwest, but more than 90% of the supply now comes from farmed paddies.

The Sacramento Valley's flat land, hot, dry summers and ample water provide superb growing conditions for wild rice. Five miles west of downtown Sacramento, Interstate 80 soars above the Yolo Bypass flood plain, a vast meadow of green and tan, crisscrossed by levees and irrigation ditches.

On a broiling late-summer afternoon, Jack DeWit, a grower who is chairman of the California Wild Rice Advisory Board, guns his pickup truck over rutted tracks to inspect 1,200 acres of the ripening grain. Leaping out, he sloshes into a paddy and bends down to check a banded stick that indicates the proper water level, 8 inches.

The yearly cycle begins in spring as soon as winter rains dry up, when he cultivates the soil, DeWit explains; in May and June he floods the fields, then sows the seeds from a crop-duster airplane. Early on, the plants lie flat on the water. Later they stand up, reaching a height of 6 to 8 feet. DeWit pulls out a plant and points out the grain; a week away from harvest, it's still green on the surface and milky in texture inside.

As dragonflies hover and a slender blue heron flaps into the air, a cloud of blackbirds swoops into the paddy. DeWit frowns and grabs a shotgun out of the truck. "Those blackbirds have got a hotel in the reeds and a smorgasbord in the wild rice fields," he says, blasting into the air as the birds fly off. "Blackbirds can destroy your crop."

Farmers try to scare off the marauders with noise cannons, model airplanes and even trained falcons, but shotguns still work best, he says.

The next afternoon, 20 miles north in Pleasant Grove, Chris McKenzie sits in the enclosed cabin of his half-track combine, reaping a newly drained field. Many growers harvest in undrained paddies, but it's easier on the equipment to work "dry," he shouts as the groaning combine grabs mouthfuls of tall stalks in its extra-large reel and feeds them into a thresher.

When the combine is full, McKenzie flushes the brown grain, still cased in straw-green husks, through a hollow boom into a V-bottomed hopper. "Choosing the best time for harvest is a crap shoot," he says. Too early, much of the rice is immature; too late, birds have devoured or scattered the grain.

Across the road, lush green paddies of medium-grain regular rice stretch to the horizon. California's 14,000 acres of wild rice are a pittance compared to its 550,000 acres of ordinary rice, but part of wild rice's attraction for Sacramento Valley growers is that the crops use similar equipment and farming practices.

Newly harvested wild rice spends several days to a week in the hopper, curing and developing flavor as it ferments. Most of the Sacramento Valley's crop goes to the Indian Harvest Specialtifoods processing plant in nearby Colusa, which operates continuously during peak wild rice harvest, from late August through September.

At this giant computer-controlled factory, owned by Minnesotans, the "scalperator" and "screenerator" separate the grain from the chaff, and a steam parboiler converts the starch from floury to gelatinized form. White-coated technicians take samples as the rice is dried on conveyor belts over gas flames and sorted by size.

Finally, a process called scarification scratches the layer of bran covering the kernels so that water can get through and they'll cook faster. The vast majority of cultivated wild rice is blended with regular rice, so the cooking times of the two grains must match.

Although a Minnesota farmer first experimented with cultivated wild rice in 1950, most of the grain fell into the water before harvest, in a natural seed-dispersal mechanism called shattering. But in 1963, agronomists discovered plants with some resistance to shattering, and Minnesota cultivation expanded tremendously in the late 1960s and early '70s.

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