Monday, August 16, 2010

Wild Rice--Part 1

For those who don't already know, wild rice (Zizania spp.) is a tall aquatic grass that provided a staple for the native peoples of the Great Lakes and is one of the few wild foods (along with maple syrup) that is sold today on a large scale in North America. But despite the importance of this plant as a food, I have never seen a single leaf of it--a sorry fact that I am determined to change.

I spent the better part of a recent summer morning tracking down the elusive , wild rice. First, I used the range maps in my handy copy of Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, a guide to the ecological communities of Vermont, to pinpoint places where wild rice might grow. In all of our state, it seems there were only three large bodies of water where wild rice marshes remain--Lake Memphremagog, Lake Champlain, and the Connecticut River. Within those general regions, our guide listed three public lands where wild rice marshes could be found. I used my DeLorme Vermont Guide and Gazetteer to track these down. Two were on Champlain. One was on Memphremagog. All were a good drive away. It looked like this wild edible would require an expedition.

In the Midwest, wild ricing is still an important food tradition for many people and is conducted commercially. It seemed like the type of thing that might be more heavily regulated than just picking dandelion greens or elderberries from the roadside. So, to make sure that we were doing things within the bounds of the law, I called the government. But who to call? I started with Fish and Wildlife, but apparently wildlife refers only to vertebrate animals. The folks there had no idea how to answer my question. They sent me on to the Department of Agriculture which seemed logical to me. Wild rice is, after all, a major food crop. I don't think the woman who answered my call had ever heard of it though. She would have sent me to Fish and Wildlife, but, of course, I had already called there. Hmmm. Next I tried calling the National Wildlife Refuge where one of the rice marshes was supposed to be. "That's funny," said the director, "Can you tell me why you're asking. Before this year, I'd never received a request like this, but within the past few months I've gotten three." Apparently there were some folks from Connecticut who wanted to set up a commercial ricing venture on Lake Champlain. I assured him that I certainly wasn't going commercial and that I was merely a wild food enthusiast looking for a new food adventure. He politely refused my request pointing out that the mandate of the refuge system is to safeguard habitat for wild creatures.

While I am grateful that our society has been wise enough to set aside lands like this, I was still at a loss for a wild rice destination. Next I tried calling the folks who manage the state-owned land on Lake Memphremagog. The guy there convinced me that 1.) their wild rice community was too small to be worth my trip and 2.) that it was a really cool place to visit with some intriguing ecological history. He was very friendly (as were all the folks I spoke with) and seemed genuinely interested in my project. He gave me the number for his boss who he thought could answer my questions about ricing laws. So I called him next. After more than 90 minutes on the phone with all these various agencies, I finally got my answer. Yes, wild rice is technically legal to gather on any state land in Vermont (as well as other foraging for personal use so long as the plant is not protected). However, he recommended that I should contact the administrator of the particular place in which I'd like to forage. So, one more phone call . . . turned into three as I could seem to get this last guy on the phone.

I still have not heard back, but seeing as everything this year is ready for an early harvest, I am worried that further delay may cause me to miss the season. So, I am planning an expedition for this week to the only place in all of Vermont where I think I can gather wild rice legally and will just have to use my judgement about whether it is ethical to gather there. I'll let you all know how it goes.


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  2. Ben, I'm missing Wisconsin and hope to harvest rice in VT this year. Will you share any resources locating it in this area?

    bknudtson021 ( a t no spam )