Wild Rice Harvesting

Wild Rice Wildlife

Tommy Godward (right) & his long-time helper Art Jensen

Tommy Godward (right) & his long-time helper Art Jensen

Wild Rice:  The History of a Native Grain That Saved Lives and Families From Extinction

Whether it is called Manoomin ("good berry" or "good seed") by the early Native Americans, or Riz Sauvage ("wild rice") or Folles Avoines ("wild oates") by the first Europeans and Traders, there is no other grain that has so much history (about 10,000 years).

Nor is there another grain that has been so culturally or spiritually revered.                                                                This small grain had the power of life and death for its first harvesters and when there was no other source of protein, the life giving nutritional make up of wild rice literally saved lives and families from extinction.  

Many battles have been fought over the wild rice beds because the Native Americans knew that when all else failed them, the wild rice would sustain them through the long, cold Northern winters.

Wild Rice also has some side benefits in that whereever it grows, it attracts ducks, geese and fish which are used as a food source. 

Other protected species found shelter and food as well.This symbiotic relationship is as relevant today as it was then.

When the Europeans arrived, wild rice was taken to a new level as a valuable trading item and so began a new race to control and harvest this unique food source.Wild Rice was always subject to the influence of stormwinds,temperature variations and insect and bird predation. The harvest varied with these natural influences.While one year would be good, the next 3 would range from mediocre to bad. In the lean years, the Native peoples would probably put away enough to get them through the winter but have nothing left over for trading.

With the market demanding more than could be harvested with any consistency, this native grain was ripe for modernization.  

Enter the late 1950's~60's and Jim and Gerald Godward near Crosslake, MN who were the first to begin "farming" wild rice. They were followed by Algot Johnson along with Franklin Kosbau who was joined by his brother Harold, near Waskish, MN.

These men and the other families that soon followed, were true entrepreneurs in the purest sense of the word.Not only was this a crop that had never been grown by man before, all of the knowledge and equipment to produce it did not yet exist.It was an exciting and daring time with many tales of trying and failing and adjusting and trying again.This was no easy undertaking.  There were many inherent problems to overcome such as the need to control water levels,  "shattering" which is where a strong wind or violent movement would knock all the ripe kernels into the water, different fungus caused by warm or wet weather conditions, insect and bird predation,to name a few.

American ingenuity won the day and by the 1970s and and 1980s a consistent crop was being produced at a marketable price, bringing this valuable, gourmet food source to the table of the average American as well as to those same over seas markets that had gotten their first taste of it from the traders returning from the "New World".