Most of the world’s rice production occurs oceans away from the United States. In 2011, molecular biologist Michael Schläppi dove into rice research hoping to grow the grain in Wisconsin.
According Schläppi, 80 percent of the rice Americans consume is grown in a handful of states, especially Arkansas and California. “But I think it would be wise to think about, with climate change or the drought in California, maybe they won’t be able to grow rice anymore,” he says.
Of course wild rice grows in Wisconsin, but it’s a distant relative. The real thing originated around the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers of China.
The Marquette University scientist challenged himself to uncover varieties able to cope with Wisconsin’s climate.
A long, narrow room at the university serves as Schläppi’s greenhouse. It holds special climate controlled growth chambers and is filled with rice at various stages of development.
“The main thing that I’m testing whether they flower here, set seeds and the seeds can be harvested on time before winter, before it gets to cold," he says. "And also, measure what the actual yield is."
He has experimented with more than 200 rice varieties, from Australia to Uzbekistan to South America. Each possesses unique colors and characteristics.
Schläppi uncovered a Russian line he thought would have the best results in Wisconsin. It’s known as Krasnodarky 3352.
On the roof of the Wehr Life Sciences building on Marquette's campus, Schläppi built a dozen rice paddies. They are raised beds, blanketed with swimming pool liner and filled soil.
“Two weeks ago, I started germination inside, which will be put into the paddy today and flooded," he explains.
“It’s the third year I've planted this time of year – mid April. The rice doesn’t like it, but it can make it,” Schläppi says. "That’s what I’m testing, I’m stress-testing the lines."
Last summer, he partnered with Alice's Garden's Fieldhands and Foodways Project. Schläppi planted rice lines from Africa in two paddy systems.
Schläppi is now preparing to plant rice in a field north of Milwaukee. It’s Fondy Farm, a cooperative of small-scale farmers who sell their produce on the city’s North Side. Many of the farmers are Hmong.
"I’m renting an acre of land there, so my students will help me prepare fields," he says. Schläppi will flood a portion of his parcel to mimic traditional lowland rice farming.
“What we want to test is to take a couple of seeds, put them into the soil. That’s what the Hmong are proposing, because that’s what they did in their traditional way. Just make holes, put the seeds, then you have to irrigate it, you have to weed it, of course, and then see what kind of yield we get,” Schläppi says.
Schläppi has more than a scientific interest in developing the perfect rice for Wisconsin's climate; he respects the ancient traditions of growing rice in community.
“To grow rice you really need the community, especially if it is paddy-driven, water resources you have to manage as a village. You help everyone plant, one family one week, the next week another family, you all pitch in. For the harvest the same,” Schläppi says.