Interview by Dan Cahill Mathews
5168 Hefflefinger Road
Finland, MN 55603
Open Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm
After hours and weekend drop-offs available through phone call
Meghan Mitchell is our Wild Rice Project Coordinator at the Finland Food Chain. She is tasked with continuing the work of our AGRI Sustainable Demonstration Grant to expand access to wild rice as a food source and nurture the transfer of generational skills through a mentorship program. I sat down with Meghan to learn more about her passion for all things wild rice/manoomin. Here is our interview:
What is your background in Wild Rice?
“My grandmother who lived in MN when I was a kid, but is from the south, was very passionate about her love of wild rice and cooking with wild rice and so was my mom. I grew up around two women that loved wild rice very much. Later in life I noticed that there was wild rice growing in a lake I had been going to every year in Central MN. Two years ago I got a canoe and started researching harvesting. I’m self taught.”
What is the most fulfilling part of ricing?
“It’s inherently a fully immersive experience in nature. I’ve always enjoyed activities like that. It reminds me of sailing where you have to pay attention to every aspect of the nature that surrounds you that you’re working with. I love scouting beforehand, learning about the life cycle, and getting up close and hands on.”
What part of this project do you feel most passionate about?
“It’s exciting to learn how much there is about wild rice beyond eating this delicious and nutritious food I’ve always known. To learn how integral it is to the Ojibwe culture and how much advocacy is going on out there and how much work it needs and how much work is being done and being able to connect with that and widen my scope. And making connections with people that are fighting for it is really exciting.”
Ways to be involved?
“Research the 1854 Treaty Authority for a wealth of resources and examples of ways to get involved including a wildlife biology department that is doing monitoring and surveys constantly. There’s education and outreach, there’s maps. In the real world start looking out and notice it. It’s all over in MN and can exist on edges of any lake. Step 1 is to know what you’re looking for to start to advocate for it. To discourage people from pulling it out like a weed.
“At the Finland Wild Rice House, we’re looking for people to help learn how to process harvested rice. We’re looking for anyone with stories of wild rice and help from experienced ricers who want to talk about rice. We’re looking for people to join our mailing list for a resource for local events and broader information about wild rice.”
Blake Hawbaker is the lead processor of the Finland Wild Rice House. He operates the machines and processes thousands of pounds of rice each September. I spoke with Blake to learn more about the procedure for processing wild rice and the services that the Finland Wild Rice House provides.
What are the services provided at the Finland Wild Rice House?
“This year we anticipate to start processing the last week of August and all through September. The processing facility will be open Monday-Friday from 9am-7pm for receiving rice to be processed and we can coordinate weekend drop-offs over the phone. We will process, label, and package wild rice to be shelf stable. We want our rates to be accessible for all ricers, from those who harvest hundreds of pounds a year, to those just getting into it. For those with batches over 100lbs, we can ensure that we process all of the rice together in the large parcher. For batches under 60lbs it becomes necessary for us to combine with other smaller batches to operate the parcher so we help to coordinate that. If you have a smaller batch (less than 60lbs) and you are concerned with the quality of your harvest being combined with unknown batches, we encourage you to find friends or other community members to join with so you can vet the rice before it’s processed.”
What are the steps to processing wild rice?
“The first step is after the harvest, drying your rice as best you can in the sun or with fans. Then we put it in the first parcher which is wood fired and takes 2-3 hours of roasting rice to remove the water content and prime the hulls for removal which makes the rice shelf stable. I feed the fire and the parcher stirs itself. I typically check it initially after 90 minutes and then frequently until it is dry enough.
“Next we put it into the de-huller, a custom made machine specifically for removing hulls from wild rice. The rice autofeeds into a drum where it is gently rubbed to separate the hulls from the grain. The rubbed rice exits the drum and falls past a dust collector that blows off 90% of the chaffe and leaves clean grain.
“Next we transfer the rice to the fanning mill which further cleans the grains of chaffe and dust, separates out larger rocks, seed heads, and ergot, and sorts various sizes of grains through screens. This helps separate full grains from broken grains. At this point the rice is ready to eat.
“We do have another piece of equipment that is optional in processing. The gravity table vibrates the grains and sorts grades of grain by size. This also removes 100% of chaffe and completely cleans the grain.”
How did you gain interest in processing wild rice?
“Having friends that were into harvesting wild foods like foraging, tap-ing maple trees, netting fish, and harvesting wild rice. Moving to the North Shore exponentially grew that interest. I spent 3 days training under Frank Bibeau on the Leech Lake Reservation to learn how to process rice. The machines we have at the processing facility came from Joel and Gail Hilgendorf and I shadowed them to learn their operation. I adapted my skills and lessons learned under Frank to these specific machines.”
What is the most rewarding part of processing wild rice?
“The people. Becoming a hub for North Shore ricers and meeting all the different types of people that are into ricing. It’s amazing how clearly invested everyone is in this work and how precious the rice is to them and I feel honored to be entrusted to take care of their rice. I get a lot of satisfaction when I see how happy they are to get properly processed rice back.”
What is the main challenge of processing wild rice?
“There were growing pains in learning how to physically run our operation in a new space and how to structure my time most efficiently. I want to be the most efficient with processing so I can take care of the most people possible and provide a valuable service.”
What is your vision for the future of the Finland Wild Rice House?
“I would love to see even more interest from people who want to learn how to process and use the machines. I’m happy to train anyone interested. With more help we can expand access to wild rice as a food source and increase our output of wild rice. I want to continue to be a known resource of quality processing for any novice ricer in addition to experienced ricers.”
Tips for anyone going out harvesting wild rice?
“Do everything you can to keep your feet clean while harvesting! Sand and tiny rocks are not a good crunch when eating and can be tough to remove even with special equipment.”