Marquette University Scientist Proves Rice Will Grow In Wisconsin

Apr 6, 2018

Rice typically is grown in hot, humid areas. Yet, a Marquette University researcher has successfully cultivated a small crop on the edge of Milwaukee.

The rice harvest happened on a sun-drenched, but cold morning late last October in Ozaukee County. The one-acre paddy is located on a former family farm that is managed by the Mequon Nature Preserve.

Farmer Pai Lor harvested rice for the first time in three decades.
Credit Susan Bence

Pai Lor was among a cluster of people helping with the harvest. She grew rice with her family during the first 35 years of her life in her native Laos.

"We cut by hand and bundle into small bundles. They would sit on top of stalks and dry two to three days,” Lor says.

When she moved to the United States, Lor thought she would never harvest rice again.

But nearly three decades later, she was bending over Wisconsin soil. With a large blade in her other hand, there was a swoosh as she cut the bundle. It’s as if she had never stopped growing rice.

"I remember my time back in Laos, when we gathered the rice," Lor recalls. "We waited to eat from fruits and then we would butcher chickens and pigs to celebrate."

Mayhoua Moua experiencing rice harvesting for the first time.
Credit Susan Bence

Mayhoua Moua was a child when her family left Laos.  This paddy is her introduction to the art of the harvest.

“I was six when I came from Laos. I have never grown rice – never been this close to a rice paddy before. It's reconnecting me to my roots. It’s wonderful.” Moua adds with a laugh, “I don’t want to go back to my office and work."

Not far away, Marquette biologist Michael Schläppi is gathering rice by machine. He rides atop the harvester he bought secondhand from Japan.

Starting in 2011, Schläppi started experimenting with rice varieties from around the globe - planting small paddies on the roof of the building that houses his lab. He eventually hit on a Russian variety that can tolerate Wisconsin’s cold climate.

Through a Marquette University innovation grant, Michael Schläppi purchased this Japanese harvester as well as other rice processing equipment.
Credit Susan Bence

But Schläppi says he faced new challenges in the field: “We had some drought…..and then the pump didn’t work. That’s why the edges matured much later than the center. A month later geese came and pulled out seedlings."

So he erected fishing line with flags attached to deter the waterfowl. But geese were followed by a parade of other pests - cranes, muskrats, raccoons.

Fondy Farm manager Stephen Petro (left) and Naoki Shimoyama who has worked in Michael Schläppi's lab and rice paddies.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Stephen Petro sees the challenges through a different lens. He's manager of Fondy Farm and works closely with Pai Lor and the other farmers who sell their fresh produce at the Fondy Market in Milwaukee.

"There were tons of dragonflies that found this right away and had nymphs in the water that would climb up the shoots roots and metamorphize into dragonflies. And frogs! There were fish in here a couple of time when pond flooded early in the spring.” Petro adds, “It’s a really interesting ecosystem that this (the paddy) provides."

"It’s so beautiful and it builds the community too," Schläppi says.

Despite the challenges, he says, the harvest was promising - yielding a total of 600 pounds. He dried and hulled the rice inside a barn that remains from the family farm that dates back to 1842.

Schläppi’s committed to the experiment, using proceeds from the sale of his first harvest to help get the second planting season underway by the beginning of June.

And farmer Pai Lor hopes to build her own little paddy this season.

Saturday, Schläppi will be selling what's left of the harvest at the Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market.

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