Productive year for northwest rice

Larry Gardiner, 46, drives an air boat while harvesting wild rice on the Canoe River. Gardiner, who’s harvested wild rice on and off for 10 years, has to drive at 9 km/h in order to not damage the plants. He said driving the boat is pretty much the same as driving a snowmobile.

CLICK HERE for an audio slideshow about the harvest!

By Mac Christie

While heavy rains in most of the province have decimated this year’s wild rice, the Northwest is experiencing a bumper crop.

“It’s an incredible crop this year,” said Brad Caisse, a rice harvester from Ile-a-la Crosse.

In some of the central areas of the province, there was no rice at all because of water levels, said Ken Auckland from Mercer River Rice, a wild rice buyer in Beauval.

He said La Loche and Buffalo Narrows are having good years, as well as Ile-a-la Crosse, after several down years because the North had less rain than other areas.

A lot of rain raises the water level too high for the rice to grow.

“Rice does really well in two and three feet of water, but it doesn’t do worth a damn in five, six and seven feet,” he noted.

Auckland added this looks to be on par with the best harvest they’ve had in their 20 years of buying rice.

But having a good harvest means the cost of rice is down, noted harvester Fred Kenny.

“The prices suck,” he said. “A processed pound of wild rice is selling for $8, but they’re paying 60 or 70 cents.”

Kenny, 47, from Ile-a-la-Crosse, is harvesting his own wild rice for the first time.

He’s working a 15 hectare area in the Canoe River that used to belong to his father.

“We planted all this rice,” he said, “but then there was no rice going, so he ended up selling the lease off. I just finally got the lease back.”

But Kenny noted that planted rice may sit for five years before it comes out.

Caisse added people became interested in wild rice in the 1980s because it was possible to make a lot of money.

“It wasn’t surprising that people would make $140,000 in three weeks,” he said.

While profit margins are gone, the rice harvesters remain.

They use air boats with large baskets on the front to collect the rice. They drive through the rice at about 9 km/h.

When the boat hits the plant, the ripe rice falls into the basket. If it’s not ripe, it stays on the plant to be harvested later.

The rice is then taken to shore, where it’s bagged to be taken to a buyer.

Kenny noted one basket usually fills about one-and-a-half bags, which weigh 50 to 60 lbs.

It takes him about 8 hours to harvest his 15 hectares. He said he got 61 bags on each of his first two harvests, which have to be done four to seven days apart.

“You can hit it up to 12 times if you do it right,” he noted. “But it depends on the weather, because frost could hit it, and that’s it.”

After it’s harvested, the rice is taken to the buyer, where they can hold it for up to eight days, before sending it to a processor.

In Auckland’s case, he sends the rice to a plant in Kenora, Ont.

While there is a plant in La Ronge, and several in Manitoba, he said they use the Kenora plant because they like the product and it gives the rice a roasted taste.

But Kenny said he thinks the Northwest could use a processing plant.

“A lot of people want to see one,” he noted.

However Auckland disagreed.

“There’s not a market for having a plant here,” he said. “You can run a plant that costs a couple of million dollars for two months and get a year’s profit out of it, it’s not feasible.”

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