Revisiting native 'wild' rice in Northern Australia

UPDATE

Trials of growing native wild rice is due to be planted near Darwin later in 2019. The rice is expected to fetch a premium price as a local product for tourists and gourmet restaurants, and because of its value, researchers can afford to grow the rice under cover to protect it from hungry magpie geese.
See ABC report: (2 April 2019) Wild Rice Trials at Humpdy Doo
Australian native rices (Oryza rufipogon and O meridionalis)
Australian native rices Oryza rufipogon and O meridionali

It's highly-nutritious and abundant across flood plains of northern Australia.

Native or 'wild' rice has been consumed by Indigenous people in the Top End for thousands of years.

Known to be high in nitrogen and phosphorous, native rice has attracted growing interest from researchers, Indigenous businesses and restaurateurs who would like to see it commercialised.

But currently costed at about $120 per kilogram, it might be a while before it makes it to supermarkets shelves.

Dr Penny Wurm from Charles Darwin University has been researching native rice for over 20 years.

She's has published a report funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, looking at potential markets for native rice products.

"It's a really beautiful grain, a wine colour, and much smaller than cultivated rice," she said.

"It's probably never going to be available in a kilogram packet at the store.

"It will always be a niche, specialist, culturally-indentified product.

"But there is interest from Indigenous groups and from restaurants and chefs who see native rice as a palatable, tasty cooking product."

Lorraine Williams and Dr Penny Wurm in the seed lab at Charles Darwin University. - Pic Caddie Brain
Lorraine Williams and Dr Penny Wurm in the seed lab at Charles Darwin University. (Caddie Brain)

Even as a premium rice product, Dr Wurm says her team still needs to overcome significant technical challenges to harvest even small quantities.

"Current milling technology doesn't quite work," she said.

"We end up with 30 per cent of seeds that still have their husk left on them and a certain fraction that are broken.

"So then it involves a hand-sorting phase after you've actually milled it; it's very labour intensive.

"That's the phase we need to get rid of."

While an understanding of the crop is now growing, little is known about the traditional methods of preparing native rice, used by Aboriginal people.

Lorraine Williams, a Larrakia woman working with Dr Wurm, says she wished she had thought to ask more questions of her elders as a child.

"In the old days people would have harvested it by canoe - hand-harvesting it," she said.

"But I'm sad, because had I asked old people 20 years ago about how to prepare wild rice, we may have had more answers."

Research & Development
Australia has four species of native or 'wild' rice. (Caddie Brain)
Australia has four species of native or 'wild' rice. (Caddie Brain)

Australian native rices (Oryza rufipogon and O meridionalis) are an abundant and widespread resource on floodplains across monsoonal northern Australia, where rural and remote communities are keen to expand economic opportunities. Native Australian rice has been harvested and consumed by Aboriginal people until historical times (Ashwin 1930; Fukiwarra 1985).

Studies of other enterprises (Gorman and Whitehead 2005) indicate that wild rice may have the potential to support new, small-scale, wild-harvest enterprises. Previous RIRDC-funded work on wild rice grain properties has indicated that the nutritional and cooking qualities of native rice collected from the wild are suitable as a food product (Wurm et al. 2012).

A Northern Territory (NT) study aims to build on the previous investigation of the food qualities of native rices, by undertaking a preliminary assessment of the market for a wild rice food product. In order to do this the project brings together traditional owners and enterprise developers, researchers and potential product buyers.

Native Rice growing wild in Northern Australia
Native Rice growing wild in Northern Australia

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