Molecular biologist Michael Schläppi experimented with rice varieties from around the globe for five years - testing how they stood up to Wisconsin weather in miniature paddies he built on his rooftop lab on campus.
He settled on a short-grain variety from Russia.
Two years ago, he took the experiment to a farm field outside Port Washington.
A story we produced on that experiment made its way as far as Vermont, where it reached the ears of a rice farmer named Erik Andrus – who today is on a tractor in this field, breaking up soil as Schläppi watches.
Andrus grows rice on 5.3 acres back at home. “Which is small by most any standard, but we’re hoping for better than 10,000 pounds of rice sales this year,” he says.
Like Schläppi, Andrus hopes to inspire others, because he says there’s no way he can personally scratch the surface of the demand for high quality rice.
“And I also have a personal connection to Wisconsin because I attended high school and graduated from Whitefish Bay. And now I’m coming back here to plant rice,” says Andrus. “My goal is to plant rice coast to coast, which is so funny.”
Andrus was helping Schläppi plant rice seedlings mechanically. He watches as a cluster of women, wide hats protecting their faces from an intense mid-day sun, deftly plunk clusters of seedlings into the mud. They grew up in Laos where their families grew rice.
Andrus has experience in working with farmers who know far more about rice growing than he.
“In Vermont we have a Nepali refugee community and those people are also very passionate about rice. So I have had those folks doing work sometimes on my farm. I’ve attended rice events where they also attend, so there’s a little cross-pollination all around going on.” Andrus adds, “My hope is that we can all develop this together with some ideas imported from oversees, some developed locally and some brought in from the cultures these people brought with them.”
Here in Wisconsin, Michael Schläppi says fruitful partnerships have helped him get this far.
When he first ventured out to Port Washington, he used a bit of land managed by Fondy Market – a longstanding enterprise in the heart of Milwaukee.
Fondy executive director Jennifer Casey has now formed a relationship with Mequon Nature Preserve where Fondy is leasing space in the preserve’s northwest corner. The site is a mere 13 miles from the market, far closer and more convenient for Fondy farmers.
“We rent the land. We have twenty acres here and we would love to expand,” says Casey. “We could not meet the demand. We had 33 farmers that wanted to farm on site with us this year, just word of mouth.”
She says the rice project fits into their mission. “We had an outpouring of interest at the rice trial plot at the Port Washington farm. It’s an important food and tying the community together because harvesting and planting is a communal process.”
The farmers are knee-deep in mud, planting.
Chueseng Vang and his two brothers have been assisting the farmers standing on the sidelines, passing the women flats of seedlings or smoothing the soggy earth, when directed to do so.
Vang’s parents are farmers, but he’s never seen anything like this.
“This process is slow, but I can see how they started when they did it in Laos and how my parents grew up doing this.” Vang adds,”I came here thinking we were going to use a machine and all that, but I found out we’re going to do it by hand, so I get to know how they felt when they were doing it.”
Vang tried his hand at planting. He describes it as slimey, but is moved by the experience. “It’s hard, but it’s rewarding too."
Vang hopes to stop in from time to time to see how the rice is doing.
Within the sea of hand-planted rice plants, Farmer Pai Lor plunked down a handful of seedlings her sister gave to her. Lor grew up planting rice with her family in Laos.
She said it wasn't hard work and that she liked it. She feels confident the rice she planted will grow strong within Marquette professor Michael Schläppi’s paddy.
"Yes, I can do it, I'm happy to do it," Lor says.
Michael Schläppi looks on and smiles as Vang and his brothers assist the women. They’re beginning to take ownership of their section of paddy.
“The section they’re standing in right now is really wet and they kept complaining that the field is not flat. But now I see them using a hoe to take pieces from the berm and push it into the section that is not flat enough. So they’re taking matters into their own hands," says Schläppi. “I think they want to win the contest in terms of yield, which they might.”
That wasn’t his original position. Schläppi thought machine-planted would conquer.
All together 250,000 seedlings were nestled into the soggy earth. And Schlappi says if all goes well it could yield a couple thousand pounds of rice.