Source: Wisconsin Public Radio
10/07/2017 – Ninety-five percent of rice produced in the United States is grown under the sunny skies and in the warm weather of California. In the Sacramento Valley, where temperatures often top 100 degrees, acres of land are flooded under about 5 inches of water where medium-grain rice will be grown.
Enter droughts that have plagued the west coast for several years, and questions about how one of the planet’s thirstiest crops will be sustained start to surface.
For Michael Schläppi, an associate professor of biology at Marquette University, the droughts created room to imagine growing rice in other parts of country where water is plentiful, like the Midwest.
“Why not (grow rice) here in Wisconsin? Why not in a place where we have ample resources of water. And we also have a lot of foggy land that farmers cannot use for wheat, soybean or corn,” he said.
Rice isn’t completely new to Wisconsin, though.
For generations, wild rice has been planted and harvested by Native Americans in Wisconsin, including the Ojibwe and Menominee tribes. Despite the history of growing rice in Wisconsin, producing it at a commercial level still isn’t without challenge, especially when it’s cold in the state most of the year.
Schläppi said part of his research focuses on figuring out how to grow rice in Wisconsin despite low temperatures, something he has seen done elsewhere.
“I had this vision many years ago when I came here that Asian rice could be grown here because I’ve seen it being done in northern Japan,” he said.
The effort to find ways to produce rice in Wisconsin has also unexpectedly led to connections between different groups and communities.
The initial stages of growing rice started on the roof of Marquette University, where Schläppi built four rice paddies. Then the project moved to a pond in the Mequon Nature Preserve, where he was connected with community groups, including many Hmong refugees, who had experience growing rice in Asia.
“They have the knowledge of what it (takes) to build a paddy, what it (takes) to plant rice. They’ve done it by hand,” he said, adding he was also learning to farm and re-employ the skills of experienced Hmong farmers who gave up growing rice after encountering Wisconsin’s cold temperatures.
The rice farming effort in Wisconsin doesn’t just end with producing a variety that can tolerate harsh weather. Schläppi said he’s also working with Marquette University’s business and communication departments to tap into a market for Wisconsin rice, a market that he believes is already there.
“I can tell you anecdotally that I’ve been approached by local chefs who are really interested in using locally sourced foods, and rice is one of those foods that you can’t get locally in Wisconsin,” he said.