Miltona man has been harvesting wild rice for 50 seasons

Jackie and Dick Wilkin, of Miltona, demonstrate the positions of the poler and beater on one the boats they have used for harvest rice over the years. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Like many of the grain harvesting operations of Minnesota, the wild rice harvest has wrapped up for another year. For Dick Wilkin of rural Miltona, Minn., this is his 50th year of gliding through shallow waters, knocking the rice from its grassy heads, and bagging up the rice to send off to the processor.

A life-long outdoorsman, Dick got his start in ricing as a young man, growing up in Mille Lacs County.

“My uncle suggested we go ricing. A friend showed us how and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

It wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now, though he developed skills in poling the canoe and beating the rice which make the process look easy.

The wild rice harvest season starts Aug. 15 and ends on Sept. 30, whether the rice is ready or not. Dick’s eyes betrayed a little frustration with how the timing is set.

“Not many know about ricing,” he said, and that includes those who make the rules. Wild rice grows in shallow lakes and streams and is dependent on nature’s whims and forces. The heads ripen from the top down, allowing for multiple passes during the harvest season; something mechanical harvesters would find difficult. The traditional method is slow, methodical, and also dependent on nature’s whims and forces.

“We harvested in the rain back in the days when making $20 a day was good money,” he said, referring to the years that he and Jackie, his wife of 61 years, camped and harvested throughout the season. While Jackie claimed a small amount of First Nation (Native American) heritage, it isn’t enough to go for the restricted license areas. They pay the fee ($26 in 2019) which allows them to harvest anywhere that’s open for public harvesting, usually near Brainerd, Aitkin or Crosby.

Dick Wilkin uses a cedar beater when harvesting the rice. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Jackie no longer goes with Dick but has plenty of experience and gingerly climbs into their nearly 50 year-old canoe, along with Dick, to demonstrate the positions of poler and beater. The poler stands behind the beater and does a tricky balancing act of staying on their feet while pushing the canoe through the water. The beater sits right in front of the poler. Dick prefers to sit on a padded stool. Equipment in the front of the canoe provides counterbalance from front to rear and the empty space in the belly of the canoe fills up with the accumulating rice. Dick and Jackie, along with their friend Linda, laugh at the inopportune moments when the polers have taken unplanned dips in the lake.

“It’s one thing when the poler falls in,” said Dick, indicating Linda’s experience on a recent outing. “It’s another issue when the canoe tips.”

Anyone who has ever canoed knows how easy it is to tip a canoe and it can be funny, but losing several hours’ work is no laughing matter.

The pole used in propelling the canoe is more effective than an oar or paddle and causes less damage to the tender rice roots. The Wilkins’ pole is 14 feet long and has a metal “duckbill” attachment at the end. The jaws open when pushed against the water or lake bottom and close when pulled away from the muck, acting in a self-cleaning manner.

The beaters are shorter sticks, usually made of light-weight cedar, and while smoothed when they’re made, they get smoother with age and use. One is used to draw the rice heads over the edge of the canoe as the other knocks the rice from the stalks.

Ricers move through the rice fields from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., according to permits. Dick remembers only once in 50 years of having so much rice that they had to unload at noon and then go back for more. These days, at age 83, he goes for three or four hours at a time.

Dick Wilkin turns the rice to dry before bagging. Photo by Nancy Leasman

While Dick stays busy during the six weeks of the rice harvest, he doesn’t spend much of the rest of the year sitting down. He still runs a trap line. The combination of trapping and ricing has provided the Wilkins their livelihood along with planting trees for Douglas Soil and Water, trapping predators and monitoring duck nests for the Fish and Wildlife Service of Fergus Falls and serving as a park ranger for the Carlos State Park.

Jackie had her own trap line for many years. She was born and raised in Texas and remembers long days of picking cotton. “The most I ever picked was 100 pounds in one day. Trapping is better,” she said.

Jackie and Dick met in Chicago while both were attending a church college. Dick remembers Jackie’s athletic ability and that she was a great hitter. “I wasn’t much of a runner, though,” she said.

Competition is a common thread through the years and the couple’s home has walls of trophies and plaques from Dick’s speed trap-setting competitions as well as his designation in the Minnesota Trappers’ Hall of Fame.

Along the way, the Wilkins raised five kids: Dan, Eric, Doug, Sue and Curtiss. All five have musical talents and Jackie is quick to say they didn’t get it from her. Dick remembers singing to the kids, though, and the image of sitting around a campfire with wood smoke and song is a distinctive one.

Dick hasn’t missed a ricing season since that first one with his uncle. He hopes to do many more. This year, duck hunting season opened on Sept. 21, which meant that the ricers shared space with hunters.

Several bags of harvested wild rice from this year’s harvest. Photo by Nancy Leasman

“We saw five duck hunters,” Dick said. “They were nice. They had as much right to be there as we did,” he laughed as he hinted at avoiding an opposition of guns versus a pole and two sticks.

As the days of the 2019 rice harvest wound down, Dick turned the last pile of rice on his garage floor and sacked it up to total 1,500 pounds or more. Next stop would be A B Rice Processing in Cass Lake, where it would be parched in a revolving drum over a wood fire. After that, threshing to remove the chaff, leaving the kernels and dust. A little further winnowing and the rice is ready to split among those who assisted in the harvest and for Dick’s customers. He also trades with a local Amish man for maple syrup. Of course the Wilkins cook wild rice for their own consumption, too.

“We like to eat it plain, with butter,” said Jackie.

“And in hot dishes,” added Dick.