After a day of howling winds and an overcast sky, the sudden stillness at sunset was almost startling.
The sun began to descend toward the horizon over Meeyomoot Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Rays of light poked through the clouds and coloured the sky burnt orange, pink and yellow.
The Muirhead family had been at the ready all afternoon, waiting for the wind to die down, so they could get back out on the water and continue harvesting wild rice.
It’s an unconventional harvesting scene — lightweight aluminum airboats gliding over the water’s surface and a buzz boat waiting to collect the harvest — and a vital part of the province’s northern economy.
Apart from wild rice’s delicious nutty flavour and nutritious value, a marketing story of sustainability has helped make it popular all over the world.
The story is true: Wild rice is an organic food source grown in harmony with nature. Harvesters go to great lengths to ensure Saskatchewan’s pristine northern waters stay that way.
The Muirheads are some of the industry’s newest arrivals and are working to create a more robust local market for the high-fibre grain.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Larissa and Chase Muirhead took over a long-standing wild rice operation on Meeyomoot Lake with Chase’s family. Both are northerners through and through, born in La Ronge. Neither would dream of living anywhere else.
They have careers in non-agricultural sectors, but when the wild rice opportunity came, they jumped at the chance.
More than 30 years ago, Lynn Riese obtained a lease to harvest wild rice from Meeyomoot and several smaller lakes in the area just east of Prince Albert National Park. (Riese also exports wild rice via his company, Riese’s Canadian Lake Wild Rice.) Provincial regulations stipulate that only northern residents can hold leases on lakes where wild rice grows.
Riese and his family built a camp on an island at Meeyomoot — the area can only be accessed by plane — and acquired all the necessary harvesting equipment.
Riese wanted to pass along the business to another family and approached longtime friend Garth Muirhead, Chase’s father.
While the Muirheads didn’t have an agricultural background, they wanted to try. In 2015, the family began a two-year crop sharing agreement with Riese to learn the ropes; Against the Grain Organic Wild Rice was born.
The Muirheads got lucky. Those were the highest yielding years for rice in a long time.
“So (we) got stars in (our) eyes,” Larissa said. “You really see what a year can be like when the weather is right, and the rice is growing (well).”
But then — typical in agriculture — that high was followed by an extreme low.
“Our first year on our own was the worst year on record.”
That first year was tough for other reasons, too.
Industrious beavers dropped six trees on the camp, destroying two harvesters and several cabins. A plow wind tore apart a buzz boat. The docks washed away in a storm.
“It was pretty interesting to go through all of the really bad things in one year,” Larissa laughed.
Family members, including Chase’s brother and his family, all take turns working during the harvest season from late August to October. Sometimes, the whole clan lives at camp together.
“For us, this is a family affair,” Larissa said.
The camp is full of laughter and camaraderie. Larissa and Chase’s young daughter Violet loves camp life, playing with her cousins and immersing herself in nature.
“It’s a great place to raise a kid and have them out here. It means a lot,” Larissa said.
A Cessna 180 float plane came with the camp, and they hire a pilot each season for flights during harvest.
Chase also has his pilot’s licence, so in the off-time, the couple explores islands in the area, foraging wild foods. Larissa is an apothecarist, skilled at using northern plants for health remedies.
The area’s bounty is almost hard to believe. The hill on one island was peach-coloured from all the chanterelle mushrooms growing. Other spots overflowed with blueberries and cranberries.
The camp island, like all the rest, is full of fir trees and bush. The Cessna floats in the water, tethered to a small dock on the shoreline. The plane does triple duty as a ride for people, provisions and wild rice transport.
The camp is a rugged, rustic affair of simple log cabins, all heated by wood-burning stoves. One cabin doubles as the cookhouse, a propane-fuelled stove and small countertop the only space to prepare meals for up to 10.
A big coffee kettle sits at the ready, especially on those cold nights when the crew comes in wet and chilled to the bone from harvesting.
There’s a small shower room (which, thanks to a generator, has hot water), an outhouse and a shed full of tools. To be a wild rice harvester one must also be adept at mechanics. There’s no way for the harvesting equipment to leave the lake when repairs are needed.
It’s hard work. There’s stress about what yields will be like each year, and about breakdowns and the weather. Added to that is all the planning that goes into living and feeding people in a remote area.
Larissa said she never envisioned her husband as a farmer, but has witnessed a huge change in him.
“When (I) see Chase (coming in on) the harvester after a big day, the smile on his face is just priceless.”
FROM LAKE TO PLATE
Wild rice, a grass plant that originated in the Great Lakes region, is North America’s only native cereal crop. Saskatchewan’s climate and soil limit agricultural opportunities in the north, but shallow lakes and slow-moving rivers that formed on the ancient rocks of the Precambrian shield are an ideal habitat for wild rice.
According to a University of Saskatchewan publication, northern entrepreneurs who invested time and resources were responsible for the now flourishing international trade in the province’s wild rice.
The plant was introduced to Saskatchewan in the 1930s to provide food for muskrats and waterfowl, enhancing hunting and trapping opportunities. The commercial industry took off in the late 1970s.
Before propeller-driven airboats were introduced, people used canoes for harvesting. One person sat in front and paddled, while the second bent stalks over the boat’s side with a short, tapered stick and used another stick to tap off the rice.
Modern harvesters (most of which are handmade) have wide, flat-bottomed aluminum hulls fitted with collecting trays. As the harvester moves through the rice stands, rice grains hit an angled screen on the header and fall into the tray.
After several passes, the harvester dumps the tray into a buzz boat.
The rice is shovelled by hand into bags, which are later taken to the dock for air transport to the mainland (up to 10 flights a day at the height of harvesting).
A bus later takes the bagged rice to a processing plant in La Ronge.
Jeanne Gress manages the La Ronge Wild Rice Corporation. At a modest facility on the edge of town, wild rice is finished, cured, dried and bagged before it goes to export companies.
“It’s a wonderful product (and) it has a lot of nutritional value,” she said.
Wild rice is sought after elsewhere in the world, but the high-fibre grain isn’t a staple at many Saskatchewan dinner tables.
“As people get more familiar with it, it’ll catch on,” said Larissa, who posts recipes on Against the Grain’s Facebook page. “But people just either don’t know about it or aren’t really aware of how healthy it is.”
Like much of the wild rice grown in northern Saskatchewan, the Muirheads’ crop is certified organic and requires minimal inputs. Re-seeding is only necessary when it’s been wiped out by fluctuating water levels.
The family keeps a portion of its harvest each year and markets it throughout Saskatchewan under their own label. The rest is exported internationally.
MAGIC IN THE AIR
Meeyomoot Lake is a magical place. Aside from the camp, it’s a part of Saskatchewan seemingly untouched by humanity. Towering fir trees on nearby shorelines are set off by green stands of wild rice in the sparkling blue water.
Wildlife is abundant here — geese, ducks, moose, muskrats, beavers, deer, fish and perhaps the odd black bear. (Larissa’s handiwork in the outhouse is required bathroom reading for newcomers to camp: steps outlining what to do if you encounter a bear.)
“You know there’s something about this place as soon as you get here; it just grabs you,” she said.
She’s right. Even though it’s a short plane ride to the closest grid road, it feels thousands of miles away from civilization.
The sun disappeared on the horizon as Chase moved the harvester through the rice stands, golden rays highlighting his face. He and his family have found their happy place — a spot that also provides nutritious, sustainable food to thousands all over the world.
Jenn Sharp is a freelance writer based in Saskatoon.
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