Wild Rice Harvesting for Beginners

Aug 21, 2019

Are you interested in gathering natural wild rice from Minnesota’s lakes and rivers? Annette Dray Drewes is Clean Water Watershed Specialist for the MN DNR. She visited Northern Community Radio’s Morning Show and shared some advice for beginning ricers:

  • You will need a $25 license for the season per person if you’re a resident. People under 18 don’t need a license if working with a licensed harvester.
  • There are ricing hours. You can only harvest wild rice from 9 to 3.
  • You can harvest rice in any lake that has wild rice that is not on a reservation (non-tribal members can’t harvest on a reservation). The DNR has a list of over 100 wild rice lakes in the state.
  • By statute, you can only harvest wild rice with a canoe by traditional methods. The boat can’t be over 18’ long, can’t be over 36” wide, and you must use hand-held flails (also called knockers) that are tapered cedar sticks 30” long. You have one person standing in the boat pushing it through the wild rice and the other person is using the flails to bend the rice over and sweep it into the canoe. If wild rice is ripe it "shatters," or comes loose from the stem. Unripe rice will stay on the stem. Every plant has seeds that ripen at different times, so the same bed can be harvested several times.
  • When you knock the rice off, about half goes into the water and half goes into the canoe. Traditional harvesting methods ensure that the rice re-seeds itself.
  • Wild rice grows in mucky areas most of the time; it’s not always a solid bottom. When you get into the rice beds it’s generally too thick to paddle, so you need a push pole with a “y” shape on the end—either a duck bill or a forked stick—and it has to be sturdy because you’re pushing the boat through the rice.
  • You can tell when the rice is ready to harvest by watching the plants in the rice bed. The tops start to tip over as they get heavy with mature seed. People often go out ahead of time and scout to find ripe rice.
  • You will need bags to bag up the wild rice, and duct tape to tape your pants to your boots due to insects—rice worms and spiders. You need to protect your body. The worms crawl up and can bite you. Drewes also says, “My husband actually puts duct tape over his belly button…that’s because wild rice has a very long ‘awn.’ It looks just like a hair on the end of the seed as you’re harvesting it and it has tiny, tiny barbs on it. So it’ll catch on your clothing. It goes through your clothing and it can go in your ears—I wear cotton balls in my ears to keep the awns out.” Another common name for the awn is “rice beard.”
  • After harvesting rice, most people lay it out on a tarp to dry and let the bugs crawl off. Hold it until all your ricing is done. If you gather less than 300# you will have to thresh and winnow the rice yourself. Otherwise you can take the seed to a processor (some gatherers go in with others to make up the 300# minimum).

Annette Dray Drewes is trying to develop a wild rice processing co-op for families, because a lot of people start and only get 30 or 50# of rice. An experienced ricing team can gather 300# of rice in a day.

Annette’s favorite rice recipe is from an old church cookbook:

Sauté a cup of uncooked rice in a pan with a stick of butter. Chop some veggies, onions, and sliced almonds and sauté for about 10 minutes. Put it in a casserole dish with chicken broth and bake for an hour at 350. Yum!

Annette Dray Drewes is writing a book about wild rice, based on the stories of 50 harvesters. “The book focuses on learning about wild rice in the water in the lakes in this area through the voices of people who have been out there on the water in the rice and just enjoying the day.”

Wild rice season officially opens in mid-August, although the rice may not be ready until the end of the month. As Annette says, “If you’re looking to go out and harvest, Labor Day weekend there is always wild rice to harvest somewhere.”

Recommended Ricing Resources: