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Wild rice farmer has unique talent

Waskish wild rice farmer David Leonhardt stands beside his photo that was unveiled May 2 at the Waskish Town Hall as part of an ongoing project of Rose Heim and her daughter, Gretchen.

He considers himself a jack of all trades but he is so much more than that. He knows all about wild rice, getting into the industry after he got out of the service back in the late 1960s and he knows how to entertain people with a style of music that not many can master.

Even though he was raised in Waskish, David Leonhardt was born in Spooner, near Baudette.

"My folks lived on the farm a half mile up in the woods," he said. "Back then, there was this nursing home but the meaning of the name has changed over the years. The name nursing home back then meant it was for new mothers.

"They didn't have a hospital, they had a home. A place where doctors delivered the babies and they would keep the mothers and children there for a few days and that was why they called it a nursing home."

After several days, Leonhardt's mother came back home with him. The home they came back to in 1942 only has two walls still standing and the barn that was there is falling in now too but he hasn't gone very far -- "Just a half mile," he said with a laugh.

"My dad was actually born and raised until he was 6 in Minneapolis," Leonhardt said. "My grandfather worked for the railroad in Minneapolis and that was when they opened the area up for homesteading and my grandmother had lived on a farm and she liked the idea of farming so they got the idea of homesteading.

"He and his brother came to homestead up here and they were neighbors. They got 160 acres and they came up in the winter and they built a log cabin. The place was only 2½ miles from here, just near the river," he said.

"When they got that built, they went back down to the cities and grandpa picked up grandma and their four children. My dad was the oldest at 6 when they moved into the cabin in December of 1917. They lived there for 10 years and then rented a farm up the road from here. They moved back to Lake City where my grandmother was originally from, bought a farm down there and farmed for many years."

Leonhardt explained that by the time his father had grownup, he didn't have enough money to buy a farm down there in Lake City so in 1937, he thought he would come back up north and rented a place.

"A year later, my mother was expecting and due to have the baby and grandpa said she wasn't going to have the baby up there and so she went down to Lake City where she could get decent care. She was due in September," he said.

"So dad took her to Kelliher and put her on the train by herself and she got as far as the Minneapolis and that is where the baby was born. She continued on to Lake City afterward."

His mother kept the farm records and he still has them and they were all in her handwriting until September and then they were in his father's handwriting until April of the next year when she came home. She had spent the winter down there in Lake City.

"That was my older brother -- he was 4 years older than I was," Leonhardt said. "He was almost 8 when he died in the polio epidemic in 1946. He died one day before or one day after my aunt died. They are buried side-by-side in Kelliher. He was 7 and she was in her 30s and was expecting," he said.

The Leonhardts lived up there until 1944 (David was born in 1942) when the state put up a bunch of land for sale.

"So my dad bought the farm I was raised on. He bought 160 acres from the state. He paid $3 an acre. That was the start of it and he built a house there and that house is still standing," he said.

"After I got out of high school, I stayed home for two years and helped on the farm. I lived there until I went into the service in 1962 and then I lived in California for four years while I was in the Navy."

Once his duty to his country was over, he came back home and helped on the farm then he bought the place he now calls home.

"I was married in 1967, bought this place in the spring of 1968 and then Dawn was born in October of that year," he said.

"When we moved here it was a functioning farm but it hadn't been farmed for several years. The lady who owned it had kind of retired. The barn was empty and there was no machinery," he said.

"When I got out of the service, I got a job right away managing a rice paddy for some investors from down by the cities. They had a piece of land up there they wanted to develop into a wild rice business so I got the job of managing that for them."

By that time, Uncle Ben's Rice Company was developing and they (the company) wanted a more reliable supply for their wild rice so they set up a contract deal with growers instead of getting it off the lakes themselves.

"It kind of got started up here in Waskish at that time and when Uncle Ben's got behind it and if you made a three year contract with them, they gave you the seed which was a big deal because the seed was expensive," he said. "They would purchase the seed from lake pickers then furnish it to the farmers who developed the paddies. We contracted with them for five or six years. After that, they set up their own operation and then there were more independents and other co-ops so then I would up contracting with the processor and so I took the rice to the same place in Deer River that I do now," he said.

Leonhardt said that his father had milk cows and then milking fell by the wayside up in the area.

"We used to sell cream to the creamery that used to make butter out of it," he explained. "There used to be one (creamery) in Kelliher and one in Blackduck. The regulations kind of killed it. It hampers development. I would say it's necessary but it's too much of it. So we converted over.

"We started breeding our dairy cows with Black Angus and converted over to beef cattle. We still do. My brother, he inherited the farm from my dad, and now we have 200 brood cows over there. We were feeding 650 head of cattle this winter but they are over there at my brother's at the home place."

Not only does Leonhardt raise cattle, he also has a wild rice business that has been in operation for more than 40 years.

"When we first started, we were using the old original lake rice. It has one of the detrimental characteristics," Leonhardt explained. "As the seed kernels ripen, they fall off and they ripen over a three week period on the stalk. And so you got a problem. In order to get the most grain possible, you have to harvest before a large percentage of them fall off. So what they did for harvesting is that they built a wild rice picker."

The first pickers were patterned after the Native American way of ricing where they would go through with a canoe and beat the kernels off. The picker was an adaptation of that.

"They built a header for that which would go across the rice with little canoes that stuck out and would comb through the rice." he said. "It would beat the heads of the rice as it passed in between the canoes and would knock all the rice off. You would only get a certain percentage of it and then you would have to keep going over and over it all the time."

Leonhardt said that an unusual rice plant that held onto its rice and didn't drop its seeds had been discovered and it was developed into a non-shattering plant.

"When the farmers got the university involved in it, this new rice became a pioneer crop. They tried to breed out what they call a shattering characteristic where the kernels fall off. They developed a strain of wild rice that hangs on so now nobody uses those pickers anymore. You have to use a combines. Most use a regular one, a white rice combine, to thrash the fields," he said.

According to Leonhardt, someone got the idea to raise wild rice out in California, found they could and the industry got saturated.

"The outlets here were just too small to compete and that ruined it for a number of years until California finally backed out of it. After that, the markets were developed better and things have increased over the years fairly and steadily well then in 2007, the price started going up," he said.

"They opened up a market in Europe and that really took off and created a demand so that made the price of our rice go up. And as soon as prices went up, California jumped into it again, flooded the market once more and now I can't sell my crop. The price cut was about 50 percent last year. I still got about a third of the money for the 2008 crop coming and they haven't even started on 2009 yet."

Leonhardt said that he and other wild rice farmers are now sitting here in tough shape because they can't get any of the money they've got coming for the rice that was sold before the market went down.

"In 2008, there was a big demand. Minnesota had the biggest crop ever plus California increased their production about 2.5 percent from 11,000 to 26,000 acres. They are down to about 10,000 acres and are talking about whether or not they will go down more.

In Minnesota, the seed is volunteer, meaning what falls from the rice when it is thrashed, lies dormant through the winter and once spring arrives, regenerates itself into another crop but in California, in order for that process to work, it has to go through a period of cold weather and a low oxygen cycle.

"It never freezes there like it does here and you have to have that in order for the seeds to germinate," Leonhardt explained. "The wild rice will germinate in northern California but it won't in central California. They have to reseed each year. In 2008, they had, I think, 1,800 bins of seeds and in 2009 they had 700. In 2010, they said there were about 700 bins again but they don't know if they will use it all."

Farmers are able raise two crops per year but then, according to Leonhardt, you are trying to harvest it during the wet time of the year and that doesn't leave time to get the fields back into shape again. The one harvest comes at the wrong time of the year. Normally, they raise a lot of white rice but that market has been depressed too so they try to figure out an alternative crop.

The markets have been expanding because of the surge of it in Europe but even that has dropped 40 percent.

"It might pick up a little bit again here but they say there is enough rice on hand now that nobody would have to raise any for at least a year," he said, "in order to get rid of the surplus again."

Surprisingly, Leonhardt said that there are still people in this country who don't know what wild rice is.

Wild ricing aside, Leonhardt said that the biggest attraction for him is that this is kind of a frontier up here and "you pretty made your own decision on what you wanted to do. That was how the wild rice farming started up here. That, to me, is an attractive feature -- that we are able to be our own boss," he said.

"When we first started the wild rice up here, we were considered pioneers. The government agencies got behind us. The conservation service would do the surveying for you for free. Then low and behold, in the early 1980s, they came through with the Clean Water Act and all of a sudden, we are the bad guys. Now we can't clean our ditches and can't dig new ones."

The one drawback this area has, according to Leonhardt, is surface water.

"In Waskish, we have surface water and that is our biggest problem. When we first started, we had the freedom to deal with it however we felt necessary and now, we can't do any of that," he said. "With the wetland laws the way they are now, I have another farm over here and I can't farm it -- they still send me the same tax bill which I still have to pay but I can't clear it and I can't farm it!"

Leonhardt explained that they grandfathered in the areas that were already in production but said you can't do anything new there and according to him, has actually halted the advancement of the wild rice industry in this area.

"In order to grow new varieties of seeds, you have to have new land to put it on and the requirements to be able to do this (crop expansion) are very stringent and you want it that way to get the purest seed as possible," he said. "So you have to have new land all the time and it's got so you can't develop any new land anymore."

Originally authorities were concerned about the area where dikes were built because they felt the farmers were destroying the wetlands by making them into upland areas.

"You would have to mitigate that, as part of this government program, you develop what is called a wetland bank and in order to be a part of this wetland bank, you have to have areas that can be converted," he said.

"If you take some of the land that you have converted into cropland, you can convert it back to wetland and you can enter it into the wetland bank. Then you make it available for purchase. The only thing you sell is a credit. So if someone wants to fill a wetland, they have to buy credits to do this."

"The land values up here are quite low," he said. "If you can get $500 per acre for farm land, you are doing pretty well. The going price per acre in the wetland bank is about $3,000 per acre. I have some land that I didn't develop before 1985 and now I can't. Does that make any sense? There is something wrong with the system."

Not only was Leonhardt's interest drawn to wild rice farming as a young man, he also developed an interest, at an even earlier age, in an unusual and unique style of music.

"Back when I was a kid there were several churches that were started by students out of Bethel College from the cities," he said. "These churches would have a rally in the spring -- changing locations each spring -- and they would have a full day of services, picnics, etc. and each one of the churches would have to have special music.

"Well, there was a church over by Jessie Lake, and there was this fellow who played a saw and it fascinated me so I used to look forward to the rallies just to see him play."

Leonhardt said that he isn't very good at putting on a show because he has to concentrate too hard.

"After I was married and living back up here, the fellow that built the Baptist Church in Waskish came back here from Alaska and became pastor of the church again and one Sunday for our service, he showed up with a saw," Leonhardt remembered. "He wasn't with us very long before he passed away but that had reawakened my interest in playing the saw."

He saw an ad in the paper about some musical saws for sale.

"It only cost $27 so I went and ordered one. I got it and tried to learn how to play the thing. There was an instruction sheet that came with it," he said. "I played in a band so I was able to figure out how to play it and came up with my own style."

Instead of using a mallet or his knuckles as some do to make the saw ring, Leonhardt uses a violin bow. He explained that it makes it easier to play that way.

"My mother played the piano so I started playing along with her while she was playing the piano. It keeps you on track so then we started playing together and playing at the church and it just gradually developed from there," he said.

"Using his original saw, he began playing at the Advent serviced at the Lutheran Church in Waskish.

"We got to where we went from our church down to the Lutheran Church," he said. "We were putting up the tree up at church one year. It was too tall and needed to be cut off so I said, 'I have my saw I the car' and Virginia said, 'You better not do that! You will wreck it.' And -- with a typical male response -- I laughed and said, 'Yeah!' So I went, got my saw out of the car and started cutting. The saw had never been set or sharpened so it pinched right away. I got the tree half way cut off and just as I about had it, the saw buckled."

Leonhardt said with a laugh, that everything looked ok "so I hurried up and put it away and didn't say anything to Virginia. We finally got the tree done. I went over there to the Advent service and my mother was there to play.

"Well, she started playing the verse," he said with a laugh, "and I hit my first note and nothing happened. So I tried it again and still nothing. So I stopped her and told her I must have missed my cue so she needed to start over again. So she went and started over and I tried it again and nothing happened. It was the funniest feeling. There was something wrong! It would play high notes and low notes but nothing in the middle. There was nothing I could do so I got up walked away."

He went on to explain that when he looked close, he found a kink in it from where he had cut the tree.

"I got the pliers and managed to get the kink out but it wasn't right. It played hard. You had to really work at it and it wouldn't stay ringing. So I played it that way a little bit then I contacted the company I had bought the saw from and they sent me a packet of a whole bunch of catalogues. I ordered a new one and that one cost me $50 but was specially made for playing music. That one still plays so nice and has good rings. I am so glad I wrecked that other one," he said.

Leonhardt has always been drawn to the vast wildness of northern Minnesota and all that it has to offer.

"I always like reading pioneer or wilderness type stories," he said. "When I was in the Navy, I was a real oddity. I would tell stories about things up in this country but I guess half the guys wouldn't believe me. My next door neighbor is 35 miles away in Big Falls and my other neighbor to the north is Canada and that's about 30 miles away.

"I like that -- the wilderness. Kind of like Sarah Palin with Alaska. I have always loved the frontier idea. The old west. My grandfather saw a gunfight in Deadwood, S.D.

Leonhardt has been able to carve his own niche out of the frontier and enjoys his life and family. Things are simple yet they aren't but he enjoys life to the fullest.

Leonhardt's picture was unveiled May 2 at the Waskish Town Hall during the community club meeting. He was part of a series of historical endeavor of Rose and Gretchen Heim.