Sitting in my living room this evening, muscles unwinding after an afternoon of pruning apple trees, I’m bathed in a soft glow from the grow lights on the porch. It makes me a little giddy to look at the freshly filled flats of moist soil and think about the seeds just under the surface, warming and swelling, waking up after their winter dormancy. Each morning I check them on my way to the bathroom: any sprouts yet? Not yet. But soon.
Our porch room serves many seasonal purposes: winter storage room, spring transplant starting room, summer CSA share distribution site. Throughout most of this past winter, a curtain of bundled rice plants hung the length of the room—the product of our experimentation with growing upland rice last season. Last fall a group of students from Kalamazoo College Professor Dr. Amelia Katanski’s First Year seminar class “Cultivating Community” came out to the farm to help us begin the process of threshing and dehulling the rice and we’ve continued to process it in small batches throughout the winter months. Here is the story of this rice on our farm, told from the students’ perspectives:
Rebekah Halley, Tori Wright, Madalyn Winarski, Keelin McManus: When we arrived at the farm, Amy and the dogs welcomed us, gave a tour of the farm, and introduced us to their projects ranging from amaranth to ducks. After exploring the various crops growing on the farm we were able to dig deeper into the Duborskian variety of upland rice, seeing how it had been grown and experiencing the process of making it ready for consumption.
Rebekah Halley: Upland Rice is a unique crop. Duborskian, a variety from Russia, is appealing to farmers because it grows well in colder climates and does not require flooding or a large water source. The cultivation of Duborskian rice has been gradually spreading across the country and has recently come to Harvest of Joy Farm. Amy and John were able to obtain seed from a trusted friend [Sherck Seeds] who inspired their interest in this rice. During this first year trial, their goal was to harvest a small supply of a highly sustainable grain.
Madalyn Winarski: Duborskian rice is also tolerant to light frost during its long growing period of about 115 days. These growing conditions make Duborskian rice a perfect variety for Michigan weather!
Keelin McManus: By growing your own rice, it creates a sense of security in the fact that the crop harvested and consumed by you and your family will be free from the negative impacts of the industrial food system today. Upon my visit to Harvest of Joy Farm, I was excited to see that the rice they grew was a manageable alternative to the other strains of rice that are highly unpredictable in nature, as well as labor intensive. Overall, I found that the cultivation of this crop can be a little tedious without expensive machinery, but was well worth the effort in the end. The process of actually harvesting the crop out of the ground is fairly simple, given all that needs to be done is to cut the [stalks] of the plant. The real work comes later.
[Keelin is right! Upland rice is as easy to grow as any other garden plant. It needs fertile soil, moderate water, and protection from weed competition and bird predation. We started our rice plants indoors in soil blocks and transplanted them outdoors about 9” apart into garden beds in late May. The rice was mature and ready to harvest by mid-September. Rebekah Halley describes the process of harvesting, threshing, and dehulling the rice:]
1. To begin, cut the rice at the base of the stalk about a couple inches above the soil and tie into bundles. It will be ready to harvest when the seed heads are brownish gold and heavy.
2. Hang the stalks for about 2-3 weeks in a warm place to dry.
3. After the bundles are sufficiently dry, cut off the stems leaving only the grain still attached and put the grain into a bag or pillowcase. [Place the bag on the floor and dance on it,] using your feet to twist and turn until all of the grain is [separated] and the stem and hairs of the plant are no longer attached.
[Or, as we later figured out, you can stuff several bundles into a used feed sack and whack them with a piece of hose to thresh the grains from the stalks.]
4. With the separated grains from the stem, begin the winnowing process. Use the wind to blow the chaff from the grain. This can be done using actual wind or a box fan. Simply place the grain into a small bowl and slowly pour at an angle into a tub or larger bin beneath you. Make sure to leave room for the wind to blow away the [chaff] but not so much room that you lose the grain as well. Gravity will do its part in ensuring that the heavier grain falls into the bin. Do this about 3 times or until all the chaff is gone.
5. Next remove the hull of the seed. This is most easily done with a de-hulling machine in which you slowly pour the grain between the force of two rubber wheels in order to remove the hull.
6. Next repeat step five and winnow away the hulls of the seeds. Do this 2-3 times ensuring that all the [hulls] have blown away. (Note: Winnowing outside is heavily suggested due to the mess.)
7. After winnowing, separate out the grains that the de-huller may have missed. One way to do this is to find a screen with large enough openings to fit the already dehulled seeds through but not the seeds with the hulls still on. Then spread grain over the screen and run the seeds that were missed through the dehulling machine again. [Or simply run the whole lot back through the dehuller a couple of times until most of the grains are dehulled. Winnow out the separated hulls after each pass.]
8. The seeds are now ready to be cooked, stored, or added to any dish you please. Duborskian rice is used for its slightly sweet taste and its unique flavor allows it to be just as good as its own dish. This variety will also work in almost all recipes that call for rice.
9. A final step that you may wish to add to this process would be to select some seeds to save and plant the following year. By doing this you would be contributing toward the type of plant you wish to grow and continuing its heritage. You can select grains from your best performing plants, perhaps the tallest ones, the stems with the most yield, the timing in which they are ready to harvest, or any other reasons. However, add to this collection a few random seeds from your other Duborskian stems that may not have done so well or were smaller in order to ensure and maintain the genetic quality of your next harvest. Not only will you save yourself the trouble of buying new seed each year but you will be able to gradually develop varieties that are more accumulated to your soil, climate, and environment.
Madalyn Winarski: Now it is time for you to enjoy your rice! You may cook or store your rice. You may think that there are only a few things you are able to do with rice, but this simply isn’t true. You can make rice casserole, rice pudding, and even rice cake. Or get crafty and experiment with your own recipes, but be sure to share if you find a winner!
Simple Rice Pudding Recipe
Ingredients: 2 cups cooked rice; 1 quart milk or soy milk; 1/3 cup raisins; 1/3 cup maple syrup (or more to taste); 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon; 1 teaspoon vanilla; 1 pinch salt
Add milk, rice, and raisins together in a saucepan and heat until simmering, stirring often. Simmer for 30-40 minutes until rice is soft and the milk has started to thicken. Then add the syrup, cinnamon, and salt and continue to simmer until it thickens to your desired consistency. Add vanilla and enjoy!
Keelin McManus: Overall, [our] experience on the farm concluded with a lovely homemade dinner, and was one I will never forget. This unique experience of being able to go directly from plant to table is one I will strive for more often, and you should too! I hope that by sharing my experience on the farm inspires you to tell your stories as well, and to look for where your food comes from. Or perhaps, even go out to experience a farm yourself.
Thanks, Rebekah, Tori, Madalyn, and Keelin, for helping us begin the process of threshing and dehulling our rice! I don’t think we’ll be selling rice any time soon, but I’m glad that we know how to grow it for ourselves and maybe we can inspire other gardeners to try upland rice in their own gardens. We have been enjoying the sweet, nutty flavor of Duborskian rice in stir-fries, fried rice, and yes, in rice pudding!