Staying Afloat Merger Harvests Hope For Pricey, Dicey Wild Rice

Fixing to feed waterfowl, hunters also ended up pleasing the palates of gourmets.

The grain they sowed here decades ago is being harvested for the 14th year by St. Maries Wild Rice Inc.

Year No. 13 was an unlucky one for the small business. Its office and processing equipment, near the St. Joe River at St. Maries, were nearly destroyed in the February 1996 flood.

Co-owner Al Bruner shook his head this week as he described the “full replacement” insurance policy that reimbursed the company only $11,000 for $150,000 worth of damage.

“We started looking for a way to survive,” he said. “We had a product we believed in and a lot of customers we didn’t want to let down.”

The solution was to merge with a friendly competitor.

Ankeny Lakes Wild Rice Co. of Salem, Ore., had been selling wild rice grown locally and in Canada. Now, it’s joined with St. Maries Wild Rice and sells the North Idaho grain, too.

The damaged processing equipment was repaired and moved to Salem, where it is owned by a new corporation, Wild and Ricey Northwest Inc. The rice that’s trucked there from Benewah County is roasted, hulled, graded and packaged.

St. Maries wild rice is pricey. One reason is that it must go through an expensive state certification process to be labeled organic.

The brown, nutty grain is also made valuable by virtue of its limited supply.

All wild rice grows in shallow water. Most of it, including that from Oregon, is grown in paddies. The water from those diked fields is drained, and the crop is harvested efficiently with combines.

The non-organic, paddy-grown wild rice sells in bulk for about $4.25 a pound, said Ankeny Lakes co-owner Sharon Jenkins-Payne.

The best grade of St. Maries rice, which grows in lakes, costs about $6 a pound. Jenkins-Payne said she’s stopped feeling bad about the high cost, now that she knows what’s involved in harvest and production.

“I love St. Maries rice. I love the size, I love the texture,” she said. “I tell people you’ll never find one better. I would go to church on that.”

Bruner’s harvesting vehicle is an airboat. The boat, with its roaring propeller, glides on pontoons. It shakes the long, green seeds off the plant and into a funnel.

The seeds collect in a giant tray at the front of the boat.

“They only get about 40 percent of the rice,” said Fred Bear, manager of Heyburn State Park.

The park has a stake in wild rice because some of it grows there. Last year’s good crop made $7,205 for the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department.

“Wild rice is not a native species,” Bear said. “Stories say it was planted in the area in the late ‘60s by a group of hunters who wanted to increase food for waterfowl.

“It found a niche here and overtook some areas. We had 20 acres of it in 1983.”

The plants began clogging these shallow waterways near the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene. That made it tough for motorboats to get around. Park managers saw harvest as a way to control the invasion.

The strategy backfired.

Harvesting distributed the seeds. Heyburn now has 100 acres of wild rice.

But the thickets of plants bother park officials less than they once did, because the park was designated a “natural” rather than “recreational” park in 1990. Now, the expansion of the marshland is seen as an ecological bonus in a world of disappearing wetlands.

The wild rice business is risky. A record crop can be destroyed in a single storm.

“Wind is the absolute enemy,” said Bruner.

Last spring’s high water hurt some rice fields by creating floating mats of vegetation. The seeds were three weeks late in maturing.

“This is the latest harvest ever,” said Bruner. He expects a yield of 35,000 pounds, about half of a good year’s crop.

Unlike other grains, wild rice is kept wet until it’s processed, Bruner said.

“If it dries out, the husk will shrink on the kernel and you can’t get it off.”

Ideally, he added, the seeds would be harvested when they are completely ripe. But at that point, they’re falling into the water.

The Northwest’s only lake-grown wild rice business remains pretty shaky itself. Bruner hopes to find new investors, and more rice fields to improve production.

Ironically, the floods that have caused grief for St. Maries Wild Rice could be a key to success. Landowners in the floodplain could keep that spring high water from receding - and plant a crop that requires it.

“There are lots of lands that can be used,” Bruner said. “It’s not tremendously expensive to get started.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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