"We were the Johnny-come-latelys," Penning says, comparing California to Minnesota where wild rice has been grown for decades. Even with a late start, California quickly became the leader in wild rice production. Yet nearly 20 years after its inception, the industry remains small with only 48 growers statewide and 14,260 total acres.
Commercial production in California and the shift from hand to mechanical labor helped to transform wild rice from a specialty item to a household staple.
This growth was also due to companies like Golden Grain, Farmhouse, and Uncle Ben’s. They began blending white and brown rice with wild rice. Progresso and Campbell’s soups also became big users.
As consumption escalated in the late 1980s, the industry took off like a match to gasoline in many respects. "We were picking up some pretty solid growth on an annual basis," Penning says.
Domestic sales have leveled off in recent years, while the European export market gained strength, keeping U.S. production in balance.
Penning also grows white rice, and of the two, he considers wild rice riskier to produce, since costs can run as high as $300 an acre, seed alone claiming as much as $180 of that amount.
Many factors play into making wild rice a risky commodity to farm, but disease isn’t one of them. Shattering, on the other hand, is a common problem for growers. Typically some kernels mature faster than others and fall from the plant into the water before they can be harvested. Once this happens the grain is lost. Wind, rain, and birds, also contribute to shattering.
Local and migratory black birds are the biggest threat to his crop, and "a son of a gun" to control. When birds mash the grain to get to the milk, the plant shatters and grain falls onto the ground. Bird control is a costly endeavor, and across the board, he easily spends $25 an acre. However, leaving the birds unchecked could result in total crop loss.
Penning has used a variety of methods for bird control: Zon-gun, carbide cannon, large crop-dusting airplanes with sirens, flare shells, and even simply driving through the fields honking the horn.
There is no one surefire method that works, Penning says. Instead, he’s found a combination of everything and the constant harassment of noise has been his best deterrent.
Wild rice plants grow six to seven feet tall. To look at the tremendous mass of straw produced, you’d think that straw disposal would be a nightmare compared to white rice, but Penning says it isn’t. The main stem of the plant is hollow. It dries after harvest and disintegrates, making incorporation into the soil virtually effortless.
Seeds are collected after harvest and put into cold storage until the following spring. The seeds need cold dormancy to germinate. "It’s one of the few plants in the world that does that," Penning says.
Because of the short growing season, planting can begin as early as March or as late as May, depending on spring weather conditions. "We’re kind of ‘tweeners,’" Penning says, referring to when he plants. Harvesting typically runs from late July to Labor Day.
Rising fuel and utility expenses have Penning concerned. He estimates he could see as much as a 10 percent hike in costs for 2001. He’s already seen price increases on everything from fertilizer to fuel surcharges from aerial applicators.
Average yield statewide is 750 edible or processed pounds per acre. Growers received an average price of $1.35 to $1.40 per pound for the 2000 season. "Uncle Ben’s just announced their new grower contracts pricing schedule, and it dropped to the equivalent of $1.31 a pound," Penning says, adding, "Uncle Ben’s have been looked at as the fearless leader of the industry for a long time." He expects other processors to follow suit and lower their prices.
During the wild rice heyday of the 1990s, a grower could raise a poor quality crop and still remain profitable. A good crop resulted in reasonable profitability, and an outstanding crop, excellent profitability. Today, however, the margin is narrowing and expenses are rising, leaving little room for growers to remain profitable, Penning says.