Local Rice… and a Science Experiment
As November draws to a close, it marks a new milestone in my eating local project. In addition to completing our second month of eating local, we’ve successfully celebrated our first holiday, Thanksgiving–hooray!
Does that mean it’s all a piece of cake? Not a chance.
In my darker moments, I admit to wondering if we’ll starve this winter (pretty sure, not) and to mourning the staples we miss (at least a few). But I still haven’t given up on finding new local treasures.
Of the missing staples, local rice weighed most heavily. This healthy grain serves as the base for stir fries, the guts of cabbage rolls and the starch in some soups. And while the Indians harvest wild rice, that’s a distant cousin.
So, I went out to the internet in search of local rice and ended up finding… a science experiment.
A Science Experiment
Yes, right here in southeastern Wisconsin I discovered Professor Michael Schlappi from Milwaukee’s Marquette University. He is running trials of cold tolerant rice to determine if it is a feasible crop in the upper Midwest.
If my taste buds are any judge, the answer is “yes.”
I met Dr. Schlappi, post-small-harvest, on a trial plot in Mequon, just north of Milwaukee. The land is part of a nature preserve which leases a section to small farmers as part of the Fondy Farm project.
The wind was cold and sharp on the November morning and once again, I wished I’d kicked off my project when the weather was nicer. (One more reason October is a dumb time to start eating local.) But even the recently beheaded rice plants stood upright with an air of promise.
As you might guess, Dr. Schlappi‘s research project addresses the need to find cold hardy rice varieties that produce well in Wisconsin. But he hopes to answer another important question as well: can a business case be made to grow local rice successfully? As such his team includes business and science students—along with an occasional Hmong farmer bearing nostalgic memories of growing rice in their homeland.
Where to begin
The process of deciding what rice varieties to test involved starting with hundreds of possibilities from all over the world. After a literature search for desirable traits, candidates were started in climate controlled labs at Marquette to mimic seasonal conditions. Those that were successful were transplanted to a roof garden on campus to continue testing. And this year, a larger trial (nearly an acre) of the “winning” variety, from Russia, was undertaken.
As a novice gardener, I tend to think of planting mostly in terms of climate zone (first/last frost dates), but I learned that plants can have many diverse requirements, from temperatures during specific growing periods to length of day.
One of these requirements became clear early, when the May chill slowed germination and the rice got off to a late start. This led to a second complication—the plants then flowered late, which damaged the cold sensitive flowers. Despite the cold tolerance of the plant itself, there was flower loss and lower production.
Raccoons and other grain predators added yet another challenge and there were lessons learned about creating berms for water retention. Still the yield was good enough to mark the experiment a success.
Next year’s trial will address these and other issues and provide a closer approximation of future yields.
Despite the images of peasants bending in rice fields, a commercial farming venture, like any modern business, requires technology. Dr. Schlappi demonstrated machines for planting, harvesting, drying (with different settings for producing seed rice versus eating rice), hulling and more.
The equipment was sourced second-hand from China and Japan (one via Vermont where a similar experiment is taking place). Dr. Schlappi is considering a future venture where the equipment could be loaned to different farms as needed, increasing equipment usage and reducing farm start-up costs.
In addition, he may look into other rice varieties that have different planting and harvesting dates. That way the specialized equipment could be used for a longer period each year.
This project is exciting, both for people who want to eat locally, and for rice production in general. As areas like California face increased water pressures, production in Wisconsin could make a lot of sense.
I was lucky enough to go home with a bag of brown rice for my own “trial.” It cooked up beautifully with a nice, nutty flavor. Having snagged some of the season’s last peppers at the winter farmer’s market, I made stuffed peppers for dinner with some leftovers for the freezer.
Alas, we were so excited, we ate/froze the stuffed peppers before photographing the end result (still can’t believe I did that).
But with any luck, I can persuade him to part with more.