FDLTCC receives $250,000 research grant

The grant will allow students at the college to work with local producers to study the impact of rice hulls as mulch for crops.

Rice hulls are used as mulch
Rice hulls are used as mulch in a container at the Gitigaaning Farm in Cloquet. Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College was recently awarded a grant to study the effectiveness of rice hulls as mulch for crops.
Contributed / Courtney Kowalczak

CLOQUET — Students and local producers who grow crops at Fond du Lac's Gitigaaning Farm will soon be studying the impact of rice hulls as mulch.

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College was awarded a $250,000 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, according to a news release.

The grant is part of NCR-SARE's Research and Education Program, which, according to the news release, is "a competitive grant program for researchers and educators involved in projects exploring and promoting environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially responsible food and/or fiber systems."

How it started

FDLTCC's Environmental Institute partnered with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa four years ago to create the Producer Training Program at the Gitigaaning Farm, said Courtney Kowalczak, the institute's director.

"They have allowed us to have about four acres of land at the farm, and we split those up in plots," Kowalczak said. "We give training, tools. The Band has provided infrastructure like irrigation, plowing and everything else so that people who are interested either in growing food for themselves, for their families or to test if they’re ready to sell at farmer’s markets or create a market of buyers here in this area, they will have space in order to learn everything they need to do in order to do that."


About a year into the partnership, producers began working with Bruce Savage, a local wild rice finisher, to obtain rice hulls that could be used as mulch. Rice hulls are the byproduct after wild rice has been parched and finished, Kowalczak said.

Since then, farmers have noticed the hulls help plants retain moisture and attract birds that eat meddlesome insects, Kowalczak said.

"The idea was that anecdotally we can see the benefits of using rice hulls, but we hadn’t really done an in-depth project on it using (comparison) and controls to see what the impact of using rice hulls were," she said.

Starting in the spring, officials from the college will work with local producers to establish controlled plots, as well as a high tunnel at FDLTCC. Student researchers will monitor soil moisture, weed suppression and soil nutrients, for example, among plots that use rice hulls as mulch and those that don't to measure the hulls' impact.

Crops on a food plot
A view of crops growing at the Fond du Lac Band's Gitigaaning Farm, where producers used rice hulls as mulch.
Contributed / Courtney Kowalczak

Money from the grant will help cover the cost to build growing stations for the study, as well as infrastructure and supplies such as irrigation. It will also allow FDLTCC to support students who will be part of the project, Kowalczak said.

The grant runs through 2026, so officials will have two full growing seasons for the project, as well as part of a third season.

The opportunity is an exciting one, Kowalczak said.

"It’s a product that’s not used by other people, and it has potential," she said. "It’s organic; it’s from a harvest food from our region; and it’s a byproduct that won’t go to waste."


Rice hulls in action

Arianna Northbird, a member of the Band, became involved with the Producer Training Program in spring 2020 when she was finishing her bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth and working at FDLTCC through an AmeriCorps VISTA position. She went on to take a full-time position as the college's STEM research coordinator and served as the project lead on the NCR-SARE grant.

A pile of rice hulls rests on the ground
A pile of rice hulls rests on the ground waiting to be used as mulch for crops at the Gitigaaning Farm in Cloquet.
Contributed / Courtney Kowalczak

She started a raised garden outside her home in 2020 and said the learning curve was steep.

"I started seeds and planted everything a few inches apart, like 2-3 inches apart. They started growing and they were little baby plants, and I didn’t realize they were going to grow into very large plants," she said.

The next year, Northbird and a friend decided to get a plot at the Gitigaaning Farm, and it was the first time she used rice hulls as mulch. She said she didn't mulch all of her crops, but where she did use rice hulls, she saw a difference.

"I noticed that ones where I used the mulch, the plants were growing way faster — they were bigger, stronger. They didn’t have as much soil erosion. Whereas the spots that I didn’t mulch, the soil would just erode and you could almost see roots," Northbird said.

Northbird and her friend farm one-eighth of an acre. She grows a wide variety of plants, including the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash. She said she probably grows 30-40 different crops. Besides the Three Sisters, she farms tomatoes, broccoli, zucchini, carrots, onions, herbs and more. She grows the food for herself and her family, and she also likes to give away the food she grows.

Northbird left FDLTCC in October for a full-time position in the Band's Resource Management Division. She's hoping to still be involved with the project as a producer at the Gitigaaning Farm.

She's excited to see what the researchers uncover.


"The project itself hasn’t been done before. I know people have used it as mulch in different areas, but I had never seen a project about the effects of it ... It’s so exciting because I think the information will be very valuable in the future," Northbird said.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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