Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Family grows future by sustaining land


The field was several inches deep in water and mud, but Jessica Lundberg never hesitated. She kicked off her shoes, rolled up her pant legs and splashed right in like a child in a fountain.As the muck rolled over her pedicured feet, she said, “I want to show you the wild rice. This field is almost ready to harvest.” She took a giant step into the paddy and grabbed a handful of tall grass. She tossed it up to the levee, then ripped out another clump of grass and made her way back to dry land.

This mud-splattered, 30-year-old chairman of the board of Lundberg Family Farms expertly climbed out of the wet paddy. “That field over there,” she said, pointing a muddy hand toward a harvester in the distance, “is being harvested today. We’re right in the middle of the wild-rice harvest.”

Lundberg Family Farms is riding the wave of a growing interest in gourmet wild rice among restaurant chefs and home cooks.

Most folks tend to think of rice in terms of white, fluffy grains, but in these parts, rice can be anything from black slivers of wild rice to fluffy basmati and all types in between. The pride of the Lundberg operation is organic rice, including four varieties and blends of wild rice.

The family-owned farm, which was established nearly 70 years ago, has produced rice since Albert and Frances Lundberg, Jessica’s grandparents, moved to the area from Nebraska to escape the Dust Bowl. Their four sons — Eldon, Homer, Harlan and Wendell — took over the farm in the ‘60s. Now the third generation of Lundbergs, most of them in their 30s, is running the business. Jessica’s cousin Grant is CEO. Six other family members make up the board of directors.

The Lundberg farm has 2,500 acres, all planted in white rice or wild rice. The family also contracts with 28 other rice growers in the region for a total of 12,000 acres producing 22 varieties. About 60 percent of the crops are organic.

The Lundbergs focused on chemical-free and sustainable farming methods long before organic farming was fashionable.

“Grandpa learned a valuable lesson from the Dust Bowl,” Grant Lundberg said. “He saw what happened to the land when it isn’t renewed, when farmers take and take and never give back to the soil.

“When he moved here, he had the attitude that he was nature’s caretaker. He believed that healthy soil produces healthy food. And that’s the way we have always farmed.”

Grasping the sample she plucked from the field, Jessica Lundberg said that wild rice, although it is cultivated in a similar fashion to traditional rice, is not a rice at all. “It’s really an aquatic grass,” she said. “But it has many qualities that are similar to traditional rice. When the grain clusters begin to tip away from the stems, it is ready to harvest.”

As we wound our way through the fields over to the combine, she talked about the family’s commitment to the environment, including soil, water management and providing habitat for wild birds.

“After the harvest, we till the straw back into the ground,” she said. “Then we plant cover crops of purple vetch and mustard that replenish the nutrients used by the rice. These cover crops provide habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl.”

She pointed off in the distance where a graceful gray heron was taking flight. “Occasionally, we see eagles,” she said. “But mostly it’s ducks, cranes, egrets, geese, herons, pheasants, rails and swans. Even the birds provide some nutrients for the soil. In the spring, we have to remove the cover crops before we can plant the rice. But before we bring in the machinery, we collect the eggs.”

Local children, the whole Lundberg family and all of their friends walk shoulder to shoulder carefully collecting the duck eggs. The eggs are transferred to an incubation facility where they are hatched and released.

“About 2,500 ducks are released back into the wild every year,” Miss Lundberg said. “We are really proud of the success rate.”

By the time we had reached the field with the combine, the driver, Asuncion Jauregui, had stopped in a dry spot where he paused to allow us to climb up into the cab.

From the outside, the harvester sounds like a giant washing machine, but inside, the cab is surprisingly cool, quiet and peaceful. From Mr. Jauregui’s seat at the top of the giant machine, there’s a great view of the surrounding crops and thousands of birds congregated in the water.

As we made our way slowly across the field, we watched the combine work. In front is a huge, rolling drum covered with spikes.

Immediately behind the spikes is a row of giant, scissor-like cutters that quickly shear the grass. It is then funneled under the cab, where grass and grain are separated. Behind Mr. Jauregui is a window looking into the bin where the grain is collected. After two passes, the harvester is full and Mr. Jauregui stops to unload the grain into a truck that will take it to a storage facility.

We hear a loud boom — from “a boom gun that’s supposed to scare the birds out of the way,” Mr. Jauregui said. “They don’t pay any attention to it, though. So basically we just go slow and wait for them to move.”

In the early days of the farm, mule-drawn wagons and men with pitchforks moved the rice stubble. It’s quite a contrast to the modern techniques the third generation has put in place. Now, laser levels are used to make sure fields are flat, which, Grant Lundberg says, is especially important when you grow a water crop.

The company also buys green energy produced by wind, and it is installing a bank of solar collectors to provide power to run the milling, processing and packaging operations.

“Grandpa might not have thought of this, but we know he would approve because it fits right in with his philosophy that we are the caretakers of the land,” Mr. Lundberg said.

The following recipes are from the California Wild Rice Advisory Board.

Chicken wild rice salad

2 cups uncooked wild rice

4 cups dry white wine

2 cups water

2 tablespoons each, minced fresh tarragon and chervil

2/3 cup sour cream

10 skinned, boned chicken-breast halves

1 pound trimmed asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 pound snow peas, strings removed, halved

pound fresh, washed greens

30 walnut halves, toasted

6 tablespoons white wine vinegar

4 teaspoons Dijon mustard

4 teaspoons minced shallots

3/4 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Simmer wild rice in wine and water 40 minutes or until tender. Boil off any remaining liquid.

Combine herbs and sour cream; spread on chicken. Place chicken in greased baking pan and bake about 20 minutes.

If desired, brown the chicken under the broiler the last 5 minutes; set aside.

Blanch asparagus and snow peas in boiling water 2 minutes, drain well; toss carefully with rice and greens. Cut chicken diagonally.

To serve, place a serving of rice salad on the side of each plate and arrange a serving of sliced chicken on the other side. Drizzle dressing over the salads and garnish with walnuts. Makes 10 servings.

Dressing: Mix vinegar, mustard and shallots. Slowly add oil, continuing to whisk. When thickened, add salt to taste.

Wild rice and artichoke salad

The calorie and fat counts can be lowered by using light mayonnaise and using the dressing sparingly.

2 cups cooked wild rice

1 cup cooked white rice

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/4 julienne-sliced dried apricots

1/4 cup fresh or canned pineapple chunks

1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

4 scallions, thinly sliced

teaspoon grated orange peel

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

4 medium artichokes


2 cups mayonnaise

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon onion juice

1 tablespoon chopped chutney

Cook wild rice and white rice separately, according to package directions. Drain wild rice if necessary. Combine rice in large mixing bowl; cool completely. Add raisins, apricots, pineapple, almonds, mint, scallions, orange peel, orange juice, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Meanwhile, trim stems from artichokes. Place artichokes in large pan with 3 quarts boiling, salted water. Cover and boil gently 20 to 30 minutes or until a petal near center pulls out easily.

Drain and cool completely. Remove outside petals from each artichoke, spreading them on individual serving plates to form flowerlike effect. Scrape fuzzy choke out of each artichoke and discard. Dice artichoke hearts and add to salad mixture.

Combine all dressing ingredients; blend well. Evenly divide salad mixture in center of each plate, on the artichoke leaves. To serve, pass the dressing to use for the salad and as a dipping sauce for artichoke petals. Makes 4 servings.

Zucchini with wild rice stuffing

10 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise

cup minced onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons butter

1 pounds lean ground beef

11/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground pepper

4 cups cooked wild rice

2 large tomatoes, diced

5 cups grated cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Scoop out zucchini pulp and place shells on greased baking pan. Finely chop the pulp; set aside. Saute onion and garlic in the butter. Add pulp, beef, salt and pepper; brown beef and drain. Add rice, tomatoes and half the cheese; mix well.

Mound the beef mixture into the zucchini shells. Cover; bake 25 minutes or until tender. Sprinkle with remaining cheese; bake 15 minutes uncovered. Makes 10 servings.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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