Wild venture: Jeff and Toni Ruef take a risk on a new crop for their ‘swamp’

September 2013 Posted in Business, People
Toni and Jeff Ruef with Samantha and Emily.

Toni and Jeff Ruef with Samantha and Emily.

By Kristine Thomas 

About four years ago, Mount Angel residents Toni and Jeff Ruef decided it was time to cease battling Mother Nature.

And that has caused some farmers to think they are a little “crazy.”

Describing the land where they once grew tall fescue and corn as “swampland,” Jeff was frequently concerned about flooding.

“It was difficult to plan a crop because of the flooding. I couldn’t plant wheat,” he said.

After reading an article about Brownsville wild rice farmer Dave Rogers, Jeff arranged to meet with Rogers and agents from the Oregon State Extension office.

He began by planting 15 acres.

“When people found out what we were doing, they laughed,” Jeff said.

“They thought we were crazy,” Toni added. “It something new and not a traditional crop. People were surprised and a little apprehensive.”

Currently, there are only two farmers who grow wild rice in Oregon, he said, the Ruefs and Rogers.

What they both learned during their research on wild rice is the plant thrives in clay soil. And if the fields flood, the plant doesn’t mind because it is an aquatic plant, he explained.

During a visit to their 50 acres of wild rice paddies, Jeff and Toni shared how their daughters, Emily, 5, and Samantha, 2, enjoy visiting the fields to see the crop along with birds, including ducks, blue herons, bald eagles and egrets. Jeff encourages his daughters to listen for the croaking of frogs and the chirping of crickets.

“The fields also serve as a wildlife refuge,” Jeff said.

Oregon Tilth has certified their company, Arrowhead Wild Rice, as organic. Toni and Jeff are working to complete the necessary paperwork for USDA to sell their wild rice retail.

Arrowhead Wild Rice

Arrowhead Wild Rice

An aquatic plant, Jeff said he keeps the paddies at least 18 inches deep in water until the end of July when he drains them. He doesn’t need to use chemicals to control the weeds.

“The fields are clean of weeds because the water controls weeds from growing,” Jeff said, adding the guys at the local Wilco joke that they can’t sell anything to him.

While there is relatively little challenge to growing the wild rice, there is plenty to harvesting it.

“We have to drain the rice paddies in July and the soil can’t be too wet or too dry when we harvest in August, otherwise, the combine can get stuck,” Toni said.

Once the wild rice is harvested, it is lengthy process to get it where it is edible. In the past, they have taken their wild rice to Rogers to have it processed. This harvest, they are processing their rice on their farm with equipment built by Jeff and their relatives.

Both Toni and Jeff are extremely grateful to their families for their support and encouragement. Jeff grew up on his parents’ mink farm. He said his mom and dad, Max and Marlene, are excited about the new farming venture. They appreciate Jeff’s brother-in-law, Steve Bielenberg; his sons, Nathan and Michael; and his son-in-law, Thomas Staab, for spending their evenings and weekends helping harvest and process the wild rice.

Besides the wild rice, Toni and Jeff also grow grass seed, sweet corn, winter and spring wheat and pumpkins on 300 acres.

High school friends, Jeff and Toni met at Kennedy High School. She graduated from Oregon State in 2001 with her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in 2005. He has an associate degree from Portland Community College in diesel mechanics and took classes at Linn-Benton. They married in 2001.

Laughing they are “young and stupid” – he is 35 and she is 34 – they decided to try growing a new crop – even if it didn’t work.

“I think Jeff has the vision for stepping outside the box and be willing to try new things,” Toni said.

“This is how new things get started,” Jeff added. “We are young and I think that makes it so we are not afraid to take a risk.”

They have been “pretty successful” in growing wild rice. They sell their rice wholesale – around $3.20 a pound – to GloryBee and Hummingbird Foods, both in Eugene. They also sell rice to Seven Brides Brewing – where there is a rice beer on tap. They’ve also sold to Rogue Brewing Co.

One acre yields 500 to 600 pounds of rice, Jeff said, adding about 50 percent of what is on a stalk is lost in the harvesting process. Since the plant is a perennial, it reseeds itself.

Wild rice is an aquatic grass seed in the cereal grain family. It is one of the most nutritious whole grains available. It is high in protein and low in fat.

While giving a tour of their processing plant, Toni and Jeff watch as their daughters play nearby.

When they start to explain how a piece of equipment works, Emily chimes in, adding what she knows about the machines.

Their daughters are their inspiration for growing an organic crop and looking ahead.

“As a mom, I am concerned where my food comes from and I think there is a movement to buy food grown close to home,” Toni said. “People want to know where they food is grown. If I am at the grocery store and have a choice between apples grown in Washington or New Zealand, I will buy the Washington apples even if they are more expensive.”

What Toni and Jeff enjoy about their farm is the time it gives them to spend together and with their daughters.

And they find it more exciting to grow wild rice than grass seed or corn.

“Wild rice is meant to be grown in these fields,” Jeff said. “It’s the perfect crop for this ground. We are no longer fighting the ground. We are working with it. Which makes a lot more sense in the long run.”

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