Wild rice venture presents new challenges, opportunities

UPDATED – March 12, 2019 – 1105 CST – This story has been updated to remove some incorrect information in an earlier version.

This is the third of five business features highlighting Saskatchewan companies that are finalists in the Saskatchewan Trade & Export Partnership’s (STEP) 2018 Exporter of The Year Award.

LA RONGE, Sask. — Organic food company Northern Lights Foods is one of five Saskatchewan companies vying for the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership’s (STEP) 2018 exporter of the year award.

The company, which buys, processes and exports wild rice, is operated by

Jean Poirier, a former Quebec resident who moved to Lac La Ronge in the mid 1960s.

Poirier’s name is well known in the La Ronge area.

His family also owns and operates a nine-golf course, a collection of resort properties, a marina and a retail outlet called Eagle Point Sales and Service, that sells boats, motors, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.

Northern Lights Foods has been around since the mid-1970s.

It was initially owned and managed by the Lac La Ronge First Nation but in 2012, the First Nation’s leaders decided to get out of the business.

Poirier struck a deal to take over the company and now has offices in La Ronge, China, the United States and the Netherlands.

“I thought it would make a good retirement project,” said Poirier, now in his early 80s.

The majority of the company’s exports are shipped via container to buyers in Germany and other parts of Europe.

Poirier is also hoping to expand markets in Asia, where consumers appreciate the notion of eating organically grown rice that is harvested in the pristine natural waters of northern Canada.

“Basically, we are in a position now where if there will be more rice available, we will be able to sell it,” said Poirier.

“Right now, we need more research on the value that the wild rice harvest brings to the people of northern Saskatchewan,” he added.

“There is lots of room to increase the price of wild rice. There’s lots of room to sell more rice and there’s lot of room for more people in the North to harvest the rice….”

Wild rice is a native grain crop that’s harvested from fresh water lakes around La Ronge.

Consistency of supply and the cost of transporting wild rice are ongoing challenges, Poirier said.

Like other crops grown in Western Canada, wild rice is prone to yield loss and damage caused by unpredictable weather.

Hail and wind can wipe out an entire year’s worth of production in a single day, Poirier said.

To harvest the grain, specially designed, air propelled harvest boats drive through wild rice stands at 13 to 15 kilometres per hour.

Mature grains are collected for processing.

Wild rice prefers black lake bottoms that are sheltered from wind and waves.

The crop is most productive in water that’s approximately one-metre deep, Poirier said.

Wild rice is a shallow rooted crop, so severe winds and whitecap waves can dislodge an entire crop, roots and all.

Grains that are harvested are also prone to grade losses, caused by poor growing conditions and lack of heat.

Losses during harvest and processing can be significant.

“It produces a lot but you also lose a lot,” Poirier explained.

“About 50 percent of the grains fall back into the water during harvest so you lose about half of the crop there and you lose another 50 percent or so in processing.

“So if you have a million pounds of wild rice sitting on the lake, that might only give you 250,000 lbs. of finished product.”

 

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