California rice breeder pursues his passion
By Carroll Smith
In 1972, while studying plant genetics at the University of California, Davis, new graduate student Ken Foster became intrigued with wild rice but never thought that it would become a part of his life’s occupation. At that time, wild rice was new to cultivation, in general, and especially to California.
“I was enamored with the idea of developing a new grain crop with the potential to become a significant new crop,” Foster says. “The grain had, and still has, a good reputation as a nutritious, gourmet food product.”
After graduating with a PhD in plant genetics, Foster initially worked with beans, garbanzos, black eyes and potatoes. However, he had a very good friend, Dennis DaVia, who was an excellent businessman and farmer and was interested in growing “something different.” Foster and DaVia became partners in Nor-Cal Wild Rice, Inc.
“This venture gave me a chance to put into practice what I had learned in my graduate studies about the evolution of crops from wild plants,” Foster says.
Although breeding wild rice may have been fascinating, it was not financially feasible when only 2,000 acres were being “farm grown” at the time. Because the industry was small, Foster and DaVia had to vertically integrate to have enough business to support their seed company. Thus, they began growing, processing and marketing wild rice themselves. Then, tragically, DaVia died in 1986, and his wife Nancy, who also is an excellent businessperson, became partners with Foster.
Over the course of 20 years, the wild rice industry continued to grow to almost 20,000 acres, and California was producing two-thirds of the world’s supply. In 2007, as the wild rice market grew, Foster and DaVia were able to sell their processing and marketing business and turn the focus back to seed research and production under the new company name Kennan Corporation.
Diversified Client Base
Today, Kennan Corporation does contract research in rice, mostly breeding, for local clients in California, as well as Southern and international clients.
“We deal with private entities who want proprietary information or proprietary products or both,” Foster says. “However, we are still breeding wild rice, growing it and selling seed from the wild rice varieties that we have developed to farmers.”
There are only two wild rice breeding programs in the country – Kennan Corporation and the University of Minnesota.
“We have come full circle since the whole idea in the beginning was to be a seed company,” Foster explains. “We bought this facility in Pleasant Grove in 2006. It had been a very well-equipped Anheuser-Busch rice-breeding station, so it was a great opportunity for us.”
Kennan Corporation owns 8 and one-half acres and leases the rest of the seed and nursery blocks from a third-generation rice farmer.
Processors And Production
On the wild rice side of the business, Kennan Corporation’s function is to develop the lines, assess them and, prior to final release, get approval from the processors, who like a dark, shiny black color, kernel strength and, in general, would prefer to have larger kernels than smaller ones.
“The wild rice actually is fermented slightly after harvest, prior to processing, which helps darken the kernels,” Foster explains. “So instead of just selecting for uniformity and the color itself, we are trying to move to a pretty color.
“I believe the processors also will like a kernel that is somewhat more slender because cook time is a big issue with wild rice,” he adds. “The slimmer the kernel, the less time it takes to cook. A longer, slimmer kernel improves the overall product.”
Out in the field, wild rice production practices are similar to those of rice. For example, they are both grown in a paddy and use the same type of fertilizer although not necessarily the same amount. There are a few pest control materials, such as Shark and Clincher herbicides and a couple of pyrethroids that are registered for use in wild rice through the IR4 program, which is for minor crop registrations.
“We’ve been able to get these materials because they were already registered in rice, and there are so many similarities between the cultures of rice and wild rice,” Foster says.
At the end of the growing season, once a farmer harvests the crop, he or she takes the wild rice to one of three California processors who then sell it to the end user. The processors are located in Live Oak, Biggs and Colusa.
Personal Goal: Leaving A Legacy
When asked what continues to spark his passion for wild rice after all these years, Foster is quick to reply.
“Wild rice breeding has been a teaser from the get-go,” he says. “After 30 years of breeding, wild rice has not been domesticated. Wild rice plant breeding has been one of the most frustrating and fascinating breeding challenges of my life.
“Our early success with the development of the hybrid system, and the ensuing patent, kept my interest piqued,” Foster adds. “We are anticipating a major breakthrough in improving plant type in the very near future. All of these discoveries, big and small, have kept me motivated over the years with the ultimate goal of making wild rice a viable, domesticated crop for food consumption in the United States.”
Although Kennan Corporation always strives to be a successful niche market business, Ken and Nancy have a more personal goal for the company, too. They want to leave a legacy in honor of Dennis DaVia to his two sons who never had the opportunity to get to know their dad. And, according to Foster, wild rice plant breeding at Kennan provides an avenue for them to accomplish this.
Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.