For decades Pat Bobinski and Bruce Green have tended wild rice crops in ponds around Hay River. This year they took Kim Ripati, the operations manager of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) to experience the harvest, which was a “bumper crop.”
“I was very surprised at how lush the plants were, some of them way over my head!” said Ripati, adding she had to reach for the heads of plants and pull them over the canoe with a paddle, they were so tall.
She said you can run your hand up the stock “in an almost meditative way” and the mature rice falls into a container, but she said that is the slow way. Bobinski and Green just hit the plants and the ripened seeds fall into the canoe, a much faster way. This year the harvest was the best ever.
Bobinski told the Journal he first started seeding NWT ponds and lakes with wild rice over 30 years ago, including dugouts along the highway and natural lakes.
“I seeded a number of lakes and ponds around the north, especially near Hay River and Fort Smith.”
In larger lakes he would do the seeding by floatplane, landing on the lake and casting the seed from the pontoons as they moved across the lake. He said “the most efficient and fun” method was with a friend in a Beaver aircraft where he built an aluminum chute that allowed the seeds to be released through the camera hatch.
“When we were over the lake he would yell ‘Bombs away!’ and I would release the seeds.”
When floatplane seeding became too costly he resorted to using a canoe to seed every burrow, pit and pond he came across.
He said a number of years ago Bruce Green got involved in the project with him and kept it going. Green took on the science side of the initiative. He tracks such things as how deep the ponds are, the soil type at the bottom of the pond and the other types of aquatic plants present. He has been keeping the data records for years now.
Initially the seeds would not mature, said Bobinski, and they are still hoping to evolve a seed variety that becomes acclimatized to the north. That may have happened this year, with mature seeds and a good harvest from the ponds they focus on near Hay River.
The operation is still very small-scale. Less than a bucket of rice seeds may be recovered from a pond. Once harvested, the seeds need to be prepared very much like coffee beans including a roasting process that removes the husks.
Ripati said despite the work involved and limited results, “the progress is really very exciting.
“We have homegrown NWT seeds now. We will try growing them as part of the NFTI teaching experience.”
She said the wild rice growing will be incorporated into their “Farm Campus” which is a productive farm, (an old pig farm operation abandoned 20 years ago) between Enterprise and Hay River. They will take the experiences and stored-up knowledge of Bobinski and Green and develop them.
“More research needs to be done.”
One thing to note, if you try planting wild rice at a local pond, people are not the only beings that love wild rice. A problem Bobinski and Green encountered over the years is that wildlife also really like the lush plants. At one pond where the plant heads were all eaten off, a profusion of moose tracks were found along the shore. Ducks and geese also love the plump seeds. Likely any crop in the wild will have a shared harvest.