In southern Alberta we live in a semi-arid region, defined by hot, dry summers and massive year to year variances in precipitation. Most farmers in this region are either dryland farmers or ranchers. Many are also fortunate enough to live in the southern Alberta irrigation zone, which greatly increases the possibilities in terms of crop diversity.
But what if instead of thinking about growing crops in terms of planting seed in soil, or managing grasslands, you had to think about seeding and harvesting in a full on waterworld of marshes, bogs and deep cold water lakes?
Such is the case for Wayne Ptolemy, owner of Lakeland Wild Rice Ltd. located in the Athabasca region of Alberta.
“It starts with finding lakes that will grow it,” explains Ptolemy. “We went and sampled all our lakes’ pH levels. We came up with a rule of thumb if the lake has a good number of lily pads, it was probably good for growing wild rice. We plant in about two feet of water as an ideal, but it will even grow in four or five feet of water if it is clear enough water.”
Ptolemy, wife Alice, their children head out into the heavily forested wilderness each May right after spring thaw and begin the labourious process of coaxing a crop out of the nearby waters.
“We hand-seed, but I made a little contraption out of an old heater motor out of a truck. We attach that to an old hand caster, like a spinner. We seed about 16 feet at a time in broadcast from our air drive boats. We dump it all by hand using pails into a funnel at the end. It’s takes about a month and half until you really see if the wild rice you plant is going to go into a flowering stage. It will grow anywhere from eight to nine feet out of the water.”
With luck, says Ptolemy, once planted you will get a perennial crop out of the deal, but there is still a lot of reseeding which has to occur every year to make it all consistent.
“You can either seed in the fall after the ducks leave, but I kind of like doing it in the spring. Because when your seed hits the bottom it doesn’t go into the mud. A wild rice seed is exactly like a wild oat. It has a long barb and it will screw itself down into the soil. If you plant too soon, it will go too deep. By the time it breaks surface, it is generally a late crop,” explains Ptolemy.
Harvest is a whole other challenge at Lakeland Wild Rice, and extremely labour intensive. Ptolemy sometimes only gets a viable crop once in every three years depending on weather and water conditions.
“Ideal growing conditions is no rain, and lots and lots of sunlight,” he says. “Sunlight is the really key thing. The hotter the temperature, the more the rice grows.”
But too big of a harvest, and too much heading out, presents its own risks. If the plants grow so high the stems topple under the weight, the harvest will be a write off. Early freezing can also signal a bitter end to a promising growing season.
Even under ideal conditions, Ptolemy says he never gets his full 1,000 acres in, especially when his crop is spread over multiple, isolated lakes in heavy bush. There is just no perfect way to harvest the hanging seed heads, he says.
“On my boats I have a header system, and I can then lower and raise this basket in the front end,” explains Ptolemy. “You run over your rice about 10 miles an hour. Rice matures from the top of the seed stem down, and the very top ripens first. When you go over it, you are guessing at the time you are going to get the most seed per hit. You can actually hit it twice or three times if you go slow, and don’t beat the plants up.”
“The seed falls off into the basket, and we get about 12-16 pails per boat in a load,” he continues. “You go to shore, and your helpers on shore scoop the rice out of the headers into five gallon pails. And then we load from the pails into 60 lb. bags. On a really good day we can take off anywhere between 4,000 to 6,000 lbs.”
Ptolemy then sends his harvested product off to Great Northern Wild Rice out of Pine Falls, Man. by truck, where it needs further processing to become market ready.
“You have to parch it, and after you parch it you put a big roller through it and you shuck the shell off the rice. The shell is really hard, like a wild oat, so you have got to cook it for three quarters of an hour at 375 F.
“What that does is take the moisture content down to 10 or 12 per cent. When the seed shrinks a little bit, and when you put it in your de-huller, the hull comes off the seed easier.”
After parching, the seed is sent back to Lakeland Wild Rice for final processing and bagging before distribution.
“The seed is pure black, but it still has a hard shell on it,” explains Ptolemy. “So when it comes back I scarify ours. You keep rubbing it in these rollers and it will take the real hard shine off the outside of the seed. So it will then cook all even at the same time.”
Ptolemy then markets his rice directly to specialty stores and individual customers. He charges $5/ lb. Even with the heavy physical challenges involved in growing wild rice, and the uncertainties surrounding the yearly harvest, Ptolemy says this price represents an excellent rate of return.
He averages a profit of about $1.50/ lb. and harvests, in a good year, about 80,000 lbs. But there is another, intangible benefit which has kept Ptolemy, who is now the only remaining licensed grower in the province, in the ricing game for over 27 years.
“The best thing about it is you are out in the bush all the time,” he admits. “It is not commercialized. Where we go, you are just back by yourself, and no one is bugging you. That’s what I like about it, and when she grows you can make lots of money.”