The Godward family of Aitkin is the University of Minnesota’s Farm Family of the Year for Aitkin County. The family operates Godwards Wild Rice, Inc.
In a 1992 interview, Tom Godward told a reporter from the Rochester Post Bulletin that he wasn’t sure the family could continue to make a living growing cultivated wild rice.
Competition from Californial growers was killing them, he said then. Prices had dropped from $3 per pound to $1.50 between 1985 and 1992.
Interestingly, the prices Godwards get per pound for their rice have continued to drop in the intervening 28 years, but the family has persevered in the business by working smarter and adapting to changing markets.
In 2020, sons Nick and Brandon continue to operate the Godward Wild Rice operation with their parents, Kim and Tom, farming around 1,500 acres of rice. Tom and Kim’s daughter Brittany is an award-winning elementary school teacher in Duluth.
The family farms in three areas: Crosslake, Aitkin and Palisade. The Crosslake farm was the original.
“Wild rice is a good crop to be growing in 2020,” said Tom. “It’s a hard life, but it’s what we do, and we are adapting to the times as we go.”
Tom spoke about the nutritional excellence of wild rice as a food, and how well it has fit into changing American diets such as gluten free and keto.
“Wild rice is a seed that is high in protein and fiber. It was a sacred and staple food of the Ojibwe people before we started farming it, and it continues to be to this day.”
Godwards use a rotation with soybeans on their cultivated wild rice acres to replace nitrogen in the soil. They also till under the rice straw (stems) after harvesting the rice, to continue to preserve and increase the fertility of their cropland.
In addition to the cultivated wild rice that is harvested using specially adapted combines, Godwards care for many acres of lake wild rice, which they harvest with airboats, a technique they learned from growers in Canada. They also set aside a portion of their wild rice acres to be harvested by hand from canoes, in the traditional way.
“Hand-harvested lake rice is a product that some of our customers demand, so we work to continue to be in that niche market,” Tom said.
Godwards have started to produce certified organic wild rice, also in response to the demands of consumers. Son Brandon works with the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association to manage the Godwards’ certifed rice operation.
Not all of the family’s land can be certified organic due to proximity of some fields to conventional agricultural land, but they are taking the extra steps needed to maintain a line of certified organic wild rice.
Nick Godward and employee Derek Schuety were harvesting rice for seed last week at a field in Palisade. The family participates in a seed saving cooperative venture with the Minnesota Wild Rice council; the growers save their own seed every year, working with plant breeders from the University of Minnesota to save various varieties of wild rice seed to use in future years.
“There’s nothing even close to GMO (genetically modified or engineered) with our wild rice. We work with Jenny Kimball who is a plant breeder at the U of M specializing in cultivated wild rice plant breeding and genetics. We help her with field trials and plant breeding to enhance the natural traits we need to encourage to have successful rice crops.”
Sons Nick and Brandon are the third generation of Godwards cultivating wild rice, something Tom’s father James figured out from watching rice growers in India during World War II.
The Godwards have resisted getting into any kind of retail marketing endeavors. Instead, they focus on supplying several large wild rice wholesale markets, which process, package and market the final products.
One of those wholesale buyers is Mille Lacs Wild Rice Inc. in Aitkin. Another certified organic processor processes the organic airboat rice.