Courtesy Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
This year’s wild rice on lower Dean Lake in Crow Wing County, Minnesota is dotted with browns, signifying a poor harvest partly due to disease. Wild rice yields fluctuate annually, but this year's is especially sparse after bad weather.

Bad Weather Cuts 2016 Manoomin Harvest in Half

Konnie LeMay

Manoomin—Ojibwe for “the good berry,” known to many as wild rice—may be scarce this year, as poor weather has drastically reduced the harvest.

Half of average, 10 percent of normal, 15 grains on one lake—the reports are not good with the main harvest of manoomin that recently concluded for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. A July deluge and plant diseases have conspired to make for a particularly weak year, according to experts and harvesters.

“We traveled to Chippewa Lake, where we have gathered rice for years, and Mark Duffy got 15 grains of rice,” said Marvin Defoe, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, describing the wild rice harvest in Miisaniinawind: This is Who We Are! “The water level on this lake was seven feet higher than normal, which is unbelievable.”

Defoe had to travel three-and-a-half hours south to find adequate wild rice to harvest, he said. In northern Minnesota, conditions were similar.

“We struggled like Wisconsin—a wet summer seemed to wreak havoc on our lakes as well,” reported Thomas Howes, natural resources program manager for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “For our on-reservation lakes, we harvested about one tenth of what we normally do. This same scenario played out in much of the eastern half of Minnesota. The Brainerd/Aitkin area as well as down south toward Sandstone all suffered from too much rain. The Arrowhead region was slightly better, but still on the lower end of productivity.”

The Fond du Lac and Red Cliff areas both were in the path of major July storms that destroyed portions of highway in northern Wisconsin and caused three fatalities there.

RELATED: Flooding in Northern Wisconsin Hits Bad River Reservation

That flooding also affected the multi-agency, multi-year reseeding program to restore manoomin to the St. Louis River estuary, Howes said.

“We mechanically remove perennial competing vegetation during the summer and then reseed at fifty pounds per acre,” Howes said, as he prepared to reseed 6,000 pounds. “We had to go to Plan B and go out to Leech Lake and White Earth to obtain seed for that because of local conditions.”

Although the rice plants were established by then, the hard rains and extra water in the lakes can reduce the harvest, according to Peter David, a biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.

“We saw a fairly poor crop even in some of the areas that weren’t hit that hard,” David said. “In addition to the individual storm events, we had general high water that correlated to lower rice crops. The rains knocked seed down and reduced the amount available for humans to harvest. In some areas, there were disease outbreaks that might have been associated from the flooding. We’re probably, maybe half of an average season, well below a good season.”

Ups and downs for the wild rice harvest are not unusual in themselves, he added. For longtime harvesters, “the old rule is in four years, you’ll have one very good, one very poor and a couple of middling years.”

Lower Dean Lake in 2015 shows a lush, healthy manoomin harvest. (Photo: Courtesy Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission)

Lake harvests are more susceptible to yearly fluctuations than riverbeds, he said, illustrating with images from lower Dean Lake in Minnesota.

“Some years that lake is a hayfield, some years totally open water, some half a crop, some with brown spot disease,” he said. “A super robust crop doesn't necessarily translate into a super harvest, as harvest is influenced by more than simple stand density. Other things that can influence harvest include weather, plant density, disease, pollination problems, probably even the crop the year before.”

While fluctuations are normal, David said he does fear for the long-term health of the plant with so much cultural history, a diet staple. Those lucky enough to harvest or purchase the rice can consult a website featuring facts and cultural insights about manoomin, along with recipes.

Northern wild rice is adapted to northern conditions, and almost every aspect of climate change affects it, including the heavier rainfalls, disease outbreaks and fungal outbreaks from warm, wet conditions, David explained Even milder, shorter winters can be bad for wild rice because a longer grown season favors other plants that may compete with it, he said.

“For myself, personally, I think climate change is the biggest threat right now,” he said.

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Great Lakes
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
Konnie LeMay