Rice in the Time of Drought
What is a geologist doing writing about a plant?
Are you a rice- or potato-sort of person? Give me a potato any day. However, last year at my farmers market in Davis, California, I found a nutty, brown rice with a toasted flavor from leaving the plant in the fields to ripen a few extra weeks. Traveling for work over the past few years to northern Minnesota, I also discovered real wild rice, Manoomin, hand-harvested on tribal ponds and streams. I always pick up a few pounds at the local grocery to bring as gifts to my less fortunate family and friends who can’t ‘go north’. But this year, the brown rice disappeared from the farmers market, and my cupboard is empty of the Minnesota wild rice. What shall I do?
In mid-September, I traveled to Duluth for a planetarium show, the finale of a three-year project at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College by middle and high school students who attend gidakiimanaaniwigamig. On Saturday, I went with the Gida students to ‘rice camp’, an open, community event to harvest wild rice and see the traditional Ojibwe methods of processing the rice.
I had no idea of the labor-intensive steps in taking rice to table – beating the water grass to collect the seeds, cleaning out the worms and chaff, parching to dry it out, dancing on it to separate the husk from the inner grain, then the final picking – a painstaking process of using our fingers to remove the remaining husks from the edible grains. Modern machinery can do the work, but the day gave me an appreciation for the $18.95 price tag on a pound of wild rice.
As I sat at the picking table, a woman told us novice hand-pickers that wild rice isn’t really rice. What? Wild rice, genus Zizania, is only a distant cousin to the food we call rice, genus Oryza. She also said the Ojibwe in Minnesota are experiencing a season with little to no Manoomin. The local ponds are closed this year to ricing by Ojibwe families.
But…I want my wild rice! Alison called the local grocery and no rice. She called the gas station and no rice. Another woman said people are holding onto their rice because it is scarce this year.
It was only the next day that the relationship between the two states and their rice production began to niggle in my brain. I sat at a fire pit in front of the Duluth Grill. As my colleagues and I discussed Friday night’s program and the end of our project, we waxed on about the comfort of an open fire -its smell and the memories of camping. A Californian now, I was thinking that I may never again experience a campfire. The comforting smell of smoke in this safe, city setting was such a contrast to the fear and anxiety that a whiff of smoke evokes in the Kings Beach, California, nestled in Tahoe National Forest of the Sierra Nevada.
I moved a few years ago to northern California, America’s vegetable patch, with surprisingly hot, dry summers and, even more surprising, one of the top U.S. rice producers. There is less rice in California now too. With record-breaking temperatures and diminishing water supplies, in 2022 more than half of California’s rice fields are left without harvest — about 300,000 out of the 550,000 in reported acres. And that’s just the rice! The years-long drought and dwindling water supply are estimated to have left more than 531,000 acres of California farmlands unplanted this year - a 36% increase since August of last year.
I wonder if Minnesota just had a bad year for rice – sometimes that happens to any crop. Is it climate change that has messed with temperatures in the growing season? Or could it be, as many of the locals say, the fluctuating water levels in ponds and streams from a breach in the acquifer due to repairs on Line 3, one of the pipelines taking Canadian oil sands to the edge of Lake Superior.? In 2021, repairs on the old line resulted in hundreds of gallons of groundwater spewing into the ponds and lakes.
Both my rice grown in the brown, dry California irrigated soil and the water grass growing naturally in the ponds and streams of green, green Minnesota have a distinctive taste and direct connection to the land and to the pride people take in their produce. Too little water and too much unwanted water both result in less rice.
It turns out that the missing rice at the farmers market is due to a labor shortage rather than a rice shortage, and I ended up with three pounds of wild rice from the casino gift shop. My minor food-crisis was averted. But what does this mean in the larger context of a changing world? For the people who live on tribal lands in the north central part of the continent, Manoomin is more than just a food. This is not my story to tell. But I pay taxes in California and rely on local food supplies, so that story is mine.
Rice crops contribute more than $5 billion a year and tens of thousands of jobs to California’s economy, according to the California Rice Commission as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. In Colusa, the county just to the north of where I live, things are in dire straits. An estimated 120,000 acres of rice land remains unplanted.
I am a geologist, not a biologist, so I’ve actually surprised myself by obsessing over rice these past two weeks. But, of course, as everything does, it links to the Earth. Water, fire, temperature, and land-use are climate issues.
The struggle of this one little plant is just another signal that the world is complex and difficult to understand. My own quest to make sense of my experience and new knowledge seems to be just a normal part of daily life. I should embrace this complexity rather than letting it increase my anxiety. In other words, just stay calm and do what I can.
It’s the ‘stay calm’ part that is difficult.
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Undergraduate students in a summer research program at the University of Minnesota made this story map: Importance of and Threats to Manoomin. Excellent work, and you can pick and choose what to delve into.
This will give you a taste for the issues around the Line 3 breach of the acquifer in northern Minnesota. I suggest you google if you want to learn more, as this is a highly charged political issue.
The San Francisco Chronicle has some great articles on effects of the drought on California agriculture. This one with great satellite images and this one with shocking graphs. I am so impressed with this reporting - anyone want to be a data journalist? If you can’t read these articles, the Chronicle has a special of a 6 month subscription for $.99 right now!
And for my fellow foodies, I may regret this if you buy up all my favorite rice, but it really is good. (They do not pay me for this!) I just found out that Massa Organics did have some of the water shortages this year, so they are out of rice – next harvest available in November.
A fun thing
Something I read this month
Both of these books are beautifully written by keen observers of the natural world - one book a classic and the other brand new. I chose those now because autumn is a glorious time to be outside.
Chapter 2 of Paradise Notebooks is a wonderful essay on obsidian, the very rock and same location as the rock in the video above! For the second month, I’m pushing an essay in Orion Magazine, The Extraordinary Disorder of Obsidian, excerpted from The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles across the Sierra Nevada, by Richard J. Nevle and Steven Nightingale, published in spring 2022 by Cornell University Press.
This new edition of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland is a beautiful book. Shepherd is considered one of the top nature writers of the 20th century, and the Forward to this new edition by Rob G MacFarlane is a fitting tribute. Jeanette Winterson’s short Afterward is just fun, explaining why it is important that we read.
More about Earth to Susan
I am writing a book about how people see the Earth in different ways. As part of the writing process, I’ve held my book’s content close over the years. I am now ready to put some of it out into the world. So I will bring science, poetry, music, theology, literature, philosophy, history, geography, politics, and economics to these pages – all in relationship to Earth.
Most importantly, I believe that helping people understand that we all see the Earth in different ways will open conversations to help find solutions for the many issues facing the planet we call home.
I plan on one newsletter per month, and I hope you will continue to read this and share with your friends! It’s free.
Until next month,
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