Spirit Lake Native Farms: Sustaining Tradition and the Wild Rice Economy

“We migrated to where the food grows on the water, so if we don’t utilize that, we will lose it,” says Bruce Savage, founder of Spirit Lake Native Farms. (Photo by Elizabeth Hoover)

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 “Tourism, Agriculture & Natural Resources” print edition of Native Business Magazine.

“You will know the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows out of the water,” states the Seven Fires Prophecy.

For many Natives who reside near the freshwater lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region, harvesting manoomin, or wild rice, is much more than a past time and vital food source. It’s a cultural touchstone, a seasonal ceremony and a way of life. It’s a tradition passed on to younger generations to protect and support the resilient cultural and spiritual practice that connects them to their ancestors and identity. Ricers are deeply committed to the harvest.

“We migrated to where the food grows on the water, so if we don’t utilize that, we will lose it,” says Bruce Savage, founder of Spirit Lake Native Farms. “Those people who go out onto those lakes, it isn’t like they get a phone call or a text that says ‘the rice is ready, let’s go.’ There are people who travel hundreds of miles, spending every penny they have left just to see the conditions of those lakes, checking on them all year long. Our harvesters — those are the people who we need to honor. Those are the people who deserve recognition for continuing that belief system of ours.”

Savage, who serves on the Fond du lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribal Council, is intimately aware of the barriers to harvesting and processing wild rice. His family has been harvesting, processing, eating, sharing, selling and gifting manoomin for generations.

“I like a product of very high quality, so I have to do all the purchasing and processing myself,” says Bruce Savage (right), founder of Spirit Lake Native Farms, located on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. (Photo by Elizabeth Hoover)

Wild rice processing plants are hard to come by. A veteran of the construction industry and an auto repair person by trade, Savage and his wife Tawny Savage, an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe who also serves as a health therapist in Indian Country for the Great Lakes Region, invested their time and money to build their own processing plant at Spirit Lake Native Farms on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.

“Very few people have the luxury to build a plant to process their own rice — let alone go out and contract with the harvesters to make sure that they get a quality product,” says Savage, adding that harvest season only lasts six weeks — typically mid-August through late September. “I could make a decent living out of it, if I  processed wild rice all year long, but with only six weeks, all that money you invested just sits there.”

Much like ricers pray at harvest, Savage processes wild rice with reverence and respect. “All of our fires are started every morning with a tobacco offering,” Savage says.

The process begins with drying, called scorching the rice, to remove the moisture from the grain to preserve it. Next it goes through a continuous hulling machine — ”some people call them thrashers,” Savage shares. Then an aspirator removes the hulls and dust from the grain, and a series of screens sift out the fines. Last but not least, the rice is filtered through a “gravity seed separator, so that you end up with a very clean product,” Savage says.

“It’s taken me 30 years to build my processing plant to handle any type of volume,” says Savage. (Photo by Elizabeth Hoover)

Spirit Lake Native Farms’ products boast the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) “Made by American Indians” trademark. “That seal of authenticity is one of the greatest contributions for Native producers,” Savage says.

Because Savage’s family has been producing wild rice for generations, “so I don’t even really need to advertise,” he says. “So many people have been buying from us for so many years.”

Spirit Lake Native Farms sells to individuals, Native restaurants including Tocabe, and Tribes.

Visit spiritlakenativefarms.com to purchase Spirit Lake Native Farms’ wild rice and pure maple syrup.

Wild rice is not an actual rice, “it’s a grain, an aquatic grass seed,” explains Savage. (Photo by Elizabeth Hoover)

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