The Food that Grows on Water: Harvesters and state agencies seek to protect Minnesota’s wild rice legacy

Wild rice growing in the waterways around Cass Lake, Minnesota // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

Wild rice growing in the waterways around Cass Lake, Minnesota // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

It’s late summer in Cass Lake, Minnesota, a logging and resort town on the western edge of the vast northwoods that stretches east to Thunder Bay, Ontario. For a few minutes before nightfall, the sky above town is streaked with the last glowing blush of the setting sun, and two loons call to each other from opposite sides of the lake. A small family of geese slips into the shallows as an eagle circles the lake one last time. Green beds of wild rice rustle gently in the breeze, growing a little taller with each day growing a little shorter. With harvest season just around the corner, anticipation in town is building.

During the next few days, reports start to fan out into the Northwoods community:

“… Little Rice Lake, wild rice across lake, sparse to moderate density, most rice standing one- to two-feet, plants flowering; Kettle Lake, sparse wild rice across center of lake, moderate to good density rice along parts of shore and in some bays, most rice standing three-feet (some taller) …”

Ken Bruns, the 74-year old proprietor of A&B Wild Rice Processing, is already fielding calls. His facility is located just off U.S. Highway 2, which runs east-west through Cass Lake. Bruns is too busy cleaning filters, repairing machinery, and figuring out what burned out one of his compressors to answer questions about where all the rice is at this summer.

He refers people to the Leech Lake Reservation Division of Resource Management, located just south of town. There, environmental land director Levi Brown is about to take a quick three-day vacation before the ricing season begins in earnest. When it does, he can expect as much as 350,000 pounds of green rice to pass through his office, 60 to 70 percent of which will be processed in Bruns’ facility and sold to customers around the nation.

The ricing season isn’t what it used to be. Bruns was born and raised in nearby Bena, Minnesota, and he harvested wild rice every fall until he retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1995 and started up A&B Wild Rice Processing. Bruns still remembers school being let out so all the kids could jump in canoes, go rice, and earn money for clothes.

“Pretty much every car you’d see would have a canoe on top,” he said. “Sometimes two.”

Ken Bruns, owner of A&B Wild Rice Processing, stands in front of parching equipment used to process fresh wild rice // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

Ken Bruns, owner of A&B Wild Rice Processing, stands in front of parching equipment used to process fresh wild rice // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

In the last half-century, the number of ricers has decreased, and by most estimates, so has the amount of rice available to harvest outside the reservation. Bruns chalks it up to laziness; Brown points to development, pollution, and human activity. Even so, as mid-August rolls around, ricers across the Northwoods prepare for the month-and-a-half long harvest that can help people ride out a cold Minnesota winter.

This season, however, something new is happening.

After almost a decade of study and discussion, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released a new standard that shifts the focus from sulfate levels in wild rice waters to sulfide levels in the sediment. Sulfide, which is formed when bacteria break down sulfate, has been known to kill wild rice stands since the 1930s, and virtually all industry and development discharges sulfate into the groundwater. The current rule has been criticized for under-protecting wild rice in some cases, and over-protecting in others, while also failing to clearly define what water bodies the standard is intended to protect.

The revised rule attempts to address these concerns by specifically listing nearly 1,300 lakes, rivers, and streams governed by the standard and evaluating facilities that discharge to wild rice waters, such as wastewater treatment plants, mines, and industrial facilities, and, over time, determine if they need additional permit limits to protect wild rice. It also shifts the acceptability standard from 10 milligrams of sulfate per liter of the water to 120 micrograms of sulfide per liter. The new rule was released on August 21—right at the start of ricing season—and will be open to public comments until November 9.

The public review promises to be contentious, as Native tribes, environmentalists, and big industry study the new rule which, if approved, will go into effect sometime in 2018. The current standard for sulfate in wild rice waters was rarely if ever enforced. The revised rule, however, has a decade of research and millions in state funds behind it, guaranteeing a larger state role in the future of wild rice and the lakes and rivers where it grows.


Stand of wild rice in Cass Lake, Minnesota // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

Stand of wild rice in Cass Lake, Minnesota // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

The connection between sulfate and wild rice was discovered back in the 1930s by Dr. John Moyle, who wrote at the time:

“No large stands of rice occur in water having sulfate content greater than 10 ppm (parts per million). And rice generally is absent from water with more than 50 ppm.”

Moyle’s work led the MPCA to institute a standard in 1973 of no more than 10 ppm of sulfate in  “water used for production of wild rice.” The ambiguity of the phrase is one of the reasons the MPCA is revising the rules. Another reason is the state’s poor record of enforcing the current standard, which, together with a steady decrease in wild rice stands and new information regarding the possible role sulfide played in that decrease, led to an MPCA-initiated review of available information about wild rice and sulfate. In 2011, following the MPCA review, the state passed legislation which provided funding to the MPCA for further study and directed the MPCA to revise the rule to clarify which water bodies are subject to the standard and to revise the standard as appropriate.

A 2008 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) study organizing and summarizing the existing science on wild rice was an important reference for the MPCA during the process of revising the standard. The 2008 study centralized much of the knowledge on wild rice and called for further study, giving the state the opportunity to dive deep into wild rice and establish a body of research future scientists and policymakers could draw upon to protect Minnesota’s state grain.

The state also had the MPCA form the Wild Rice Standards Study Advisory Committee, “to provide input to the Commissioner on a protocol for scientific research to assess the impacts of sulfate and other substances on the growth of wild rice, review research results, and provide other advice on the development of future rule amendments to protect wild rice.” The group includes tribal staff, representatives from municipal wastewater treatment facilities and other industrial dischargers, wild rice harvesters, wild rice research experts, and citizen organizations. The committee has been meeting since October 2011, and has provided valuable input, even if the members themselves have been unable to reach any meaningful consensus.

“Everyone kinda serves their own interest,” said Darren Vogt, environmental division director for the 1854 Treaty Authority, an intertribal agency that protects the hunting and fishing rights of the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands of Ojibwe.

Some Ojibwe bands, including the Grand Portage and Fond du Lac bands, participated in the standard-making process—allowing researchers access to reservation water bodies and staying abreast of MPCA studies and surveys. Skeptical as they might be of the motives behind the study, the leaders of these Ojibwe bands decided participation was the best way to influence the process and ensure wild rice would remain protected.

Levi Brown and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, however, exempted themselves and their lakes from the process. The Leech Lake band argue that wild rice is a sacred part of Ojibwe culture and not to be poked, prodded, and categorized by researchers who have no connection to the grain, and who may also be influenced by big business.

In a 2011 letter to David Thornton, then assistant commissioner of the MPCA, Levi Brown outlined his people’s reasons for not supporting the sulfate standard study. He wrote that manoomin, “the good berry,” is sacred to Ojibwe culture and any attempts to study wild rice “would only be a snapshot in time and not produce any conclusive information.”

Brown concluded his letter with a striking analogy:

“Would you ask Christians to cut open Jesus Christ’s body and study to see if the sulfate would have any effects on that being?”

The Anishinaabe people settled in Minnesota upon finding "the food that grows on water": wild rice // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

The Anishinaabe people settled in Minnesota upon finding “the food that grows on water”: wild rice // Photo by Sascha Matuszak

Wild rice plays a central role in the Anishinaabe way of life. The Anishinaabe—a group of first nations that include Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Algonquin, and several other tribes—traveled west from the Atlantic coast after eight prophets delivered seven messages, telling the Anishinaabe to keep moving until they found “the food that grows on water.” When they reached the Great Lakes, they found manoomin and settled the land.

It is hard to know when exactly that happened, but the Anishinaabe have been here for centuries and studies prove that wild rice has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years. The Anishinaabe have long known the critical ecological role wild rice plays across the Great Lakes region, and that role is tied to the sacred place the grain holds in their own way of life.

Wild rice, not technically a grain but rather a member of the grass family, serves as food and shelter for many fish and wildlife species, protects and maintains the coastal integrity of lakes and rivers across the north, and is integral to the survival of more than 17 species listed by the Minnesota DNR as “species of greatest conservation need.”

The annual wild rice harvest tied bands together, provided a staple for the harsh winters, and was (and still is) celebrated the same way Christians celebrate Christmas. The harvest reaffirmed Anishinaabe ties to the land and to each other.

“The Anishinaabeg of the upper Mississippi and western Great Lakes have for generations understood their connection to Anishinaabe akiing (‘the land of the people’) in terms of the presence of this plant as a gift from the Creator,” wrote Erma Vizenor in 2008, as tribal chairwoman of the White Earth Nation. “In the words of White Earth’s Tribal Historian, Andy Favorite, ‘Wild rice is part of our prophecy, our process of being human, our process of being Anishinaabe […] we are here because of the wild rice. We are living a prophecy fulfilled.’”

Ojibwe men gather wild rice on Flat Lake, White Earth Reservation, circa 1925 // Photo by Kenneth Melvin Wright, courtesy of Minnnesota Historical Society

Ojibwe men gather wild rice on Flat Lake, White Earth Reservation, circa 1925 // Photo by Kenneth Melvin Wright, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Wild rice also offers an annual boon to the declining economies of northern Minnesota, a boon which can make or break it for ricers in small towns like Cass Lake, where tourism wanes and lumber yards fail to employ the numbers they once did.

According to the 2008 study, wild rice beds once stretched across the state, but are now primarily found in five Minnesota counties: Aitkin (4,859 acres), Cass (8,323 acres), Crow Wing (3,751 acres), Itasca (8,448 acres), and St. Louis (8,939 acres) counties. These counties contain more than 60 percent of the inventoried natural wild rice acreage in Minnesota and account for more than 70 percent of the harvesting trips for natural wild rice.

These counties also sit in the heart of lands the Ojibwe people retained the rights to hunt and fish on following 1854 and 1855 treaties with the U.S. government. These lands are facing a variety of outside pressures, including encroaching farmland, mining and other industry, as well as climate change. Local wild rice stands in particular are also affected by these pressures and others, such as the glut of rice from cultivated wild rice stands, a mostly non-Native enterprise which threatens the price point, and frankly the very reasoning, behind wild rice harvested by hand.

The new standard the MPCA released for public review this August tries to clarify the existing protection in Minnesota’s water quality standards. By revising current rules to address sulfide directly and creating a process to identify current and future water bodies “used for the production of wild rice,” the MPCA hopes to protect wild rice for both wildlife and human consumption, while also allowing for economic development in a region struggling with poverty and unemployment. They have spent almost a decade researching wild rice and are confident the proposal protects wild rice from sulfide impacts while avoiding unnecessary treatment costs.

Levi Brown is not convinced.

“The wild rice life cycle is mysterious and changes from time to time, and that’s okay with us,” he says. “We will participate and lend our voice, but we have no need of their standard or their studies.

“We’ll take care of the manoomin as we always have.”