Marquette prof harvests first commercial rice crop

Don Behm
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Neither geese nor raccoons nor federal customs agents could keep Michael Schläppi from harvesting the state's first-ever cultivated rice crop this week in a 1-acre paddy at the Mequon Nature Preserve.

The successful harvest of around 1,200 pounds of grain shows that rice can be commercially grown in Wisconsin, said Schläppi, an associate professor of biology at Marquette University.

Marquette University biology professor Michael Schlappi  uses a combine harvester on the rice crop.

He expects to double that volume of rice next year from the same 1 acre with lessons learned about water and nutrient requirements, weather and animal vandals.

"With ideal conditions, this rice variety should yield 7,000 pounds per acre," the farmer-professor said.

His goal is to convince farmers and other property owners that hardy domesticated rice varieties developed for cold, northern climates on other continents can be grown and harvested for retail sale in Wisconsin. At a time when locally-sourced food is increasingly popular, rice would add another option.

"Farmers with land near wetlands can do this," he said of the promise of rice cultivation in the dairy state. So, too, can farmers with low-lying fields that do not drain fully and hold standing water far into the growing season.

Schläppi already has been contacted by two farmers, one in Waukesha County and another in Walworth County, who asked how they could become rice growers after learning of the professor's outdoor experiment in Ozaukee County.

In a few years, Schläppi intends to publish a guidebook and videos on rice cultivation in Wisconsin.

Geese, raccoons

In late June, several Hmong immigrant women from Laos hand-planted seedlings while Schläppi and a Vermont rice farmer planted seedlings with a 3-horsepower mechanical transplanter.

The two teams pushed 250,000 young plants into the soil of a paddy created in the low end of a former cornfield. The field was part of the former Stauss family farm in the northwest corner of the preserve.

Geese discovered the short seedlings in July and plucked out more than 5% of the plants, Schläppi said. To deter the flying pests, he enlisted the help of his student interns from Marquette University to help attach flags to long strands of fishing line suspended above the paddy.

Later, the problem was raccoons, who appeared to play in the paddy by rolling over the plants and pulling some out, said Steve Petro, farm manager for the Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee, which rents 20 acres at the preserve and, in turn, rents garden plots to local Hmong farmers. The raccoons were trapped and relocated.

He also pumped water from a nearby farm pond when needed for the crop this summer. Berms separate the paddy into four sections to better control water levels.

Five of the same Hmong women who helped with the planting returned to the paddy Monday to help start the fall harvest, Petro said. The women used hand-held sickles to cut stalks. Temperatures were in the upper 30s to low 40s.

Nine-year-old CyaSha Thao helps pick rice stalks. She was with her mother, May Yer Thao (behind) of Fox Point, who is the executive director of the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce.  The first-ever commercial rice harvest in Wisconsin  took place in a 1-acre paddy at Mequon Nature Preserve, 9011 W. Donges Bay Road on Monday. The rice was planted in June with help of local Hmong farmers and a mechanical transplanter. The Rice was harvested Monday morning both by hand with sickles, with help from those same Hmong farmers, and with a mechanical harvester.

Schläppi drove a diesel-powered rice combine in an adjoining section of the paddy to mow down three-foot-tall plants bearing heavy heads of golden-brown colored grain. The combine separated the grain heads from the stalks.

He met Petro at the paddy Tuesday morning to complete the harvest with the combine.

For his first crop, the professor selected a short-grain variety from the Black Sea area of southern Russia. The altitude and climate there are similar to Wisconsin, he said.

His campus research focuses on the genetic makeup of rice varieties that help control a plant's cold tolerance.

RELATEDRice planting in Mequon is historic first for Wisconsin

Delayed harvest

The harvest was delayed a few weeks by the late arrival of a mechanical combine, grain dryer, bagger and other equipment that Schläppi purchased from Japan.

The combine arrived at the port in Los Angeles on Sept. 27. A full month was required for the equipment to clear federal customs and agricultural inspections there and in Illinois, he said. That's more time than was required to ship the equipment across the Pacific Ocean from Yokohama, Japan, to California.

Purchase of the transplanter from Boundbrook Farm in Vermont, the combine and other equipment from Japan, was funded through a Strategic Innovation Grant from Marquette. The grant pays Petrol for his time as well as the hours of student interns participating in the project.

The goal of the grant program is to encourage professors to become entrepreneurs. Marquette expects grant-funded projects to become sustainable after three years.

Now that he has all the mechanical pieces to go from planting and harvesting and bagging of the short-grain rice for sale, Schläppi is developing a business model for the enterprise with the goal of making it self-sufficient.

The first step is selling the locally grown grain this winter under the Red Stone Rice label.

He already has his eye on a second 1-acre strip east of the paddy for expansion of the commercial rice operation in a year or two.

Said Schläppi: "If we get a few thousand pounds of rice a year to sell, that will cover expenses."