Drought tolerant, pest resistant, and homegrown—could millet be the next great sustainable grain?
From the insatiable thirst of wheat to the heavy carbon footprint of imported quinoa, many of the whole grains devoured by health-conscious Americans today come at a high environmental cost.
That’s one reason Jean Hediger has turned into a millet evangelist.
“It’s nutritious, easy to grow, and takes very little water. It’s an environment-friendly crop,” says Hediger from her farm, Golden Prairie, in Colorado, where 60 percent of the U.S. millet crop is grown.
High in fiber and protein and a good source of manganese, magnesium, and phosphorous, millet is actually a family of small-seeded grasses first domesticated by African farmers more than 10,000 years ago. Today the grain is still a staple food in India and Africa, but most of the American harvest is sold as birdseed. It has only small market for human consumption in the United States and its commercial value is limited, so farmers are reluctant to try growing it even though it is a resilient crop.
In an era when climate change is expected to reduce rainfall across much of the world’s most fertile farmland, millet’s phenomenal drought tolerance makes it an ideal, no-irrigation crop, says University of Nebraska agronomy and horticulture professor Dipak Santra, one of few researchers studying millet.
Farmers need only six to eight inches of rainfall to produce a crop of proso millet, one variety of the grain. That compares to 14 inches for wheat and as much as 24 inches for corn. Another variety of millet called foxtail can yield grain with only four inches of rainfall.
Hediger believes so strongly in the future of millet that she has expanded her planting from 63 acres in 1989 to more than 1,400 acres today, but for now she is the exception. Until there’s more demand, it’s unlikely farmers will start planting more millet, Santra says—although he adds that the growth of gluten-free foods could spark consumer interest. And there is another obstacle, says Kantha Shelke, a food scientist and a spokesperson for the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists, because most food brands are unlikely to start using a new crop until they see it become widely available.
“Tried and trusted trumps the new and uncertain,” she says.
For now, Hediger pushes the market where she can, most recently establishing her own facility to produce millet malt—an ingredient that can be used in gluten-free beers and whiskeys. She says she’s not ready to give up on millet.
“Why do we import a grain [like quinoa] that’s quite bitter, doesn’t taste great, and costs four times more than millet?” she says. “It’s because the consumer has not been educated. We’re working on that.”
Want to try more whole grains that are as healthy for the planet as they are for you? Try these super-sustainable varieties.
Nutritious and high in compounds that inhibit the spread of colon cancer cells, sorghum is close to home; the U.S. grows more than any other country.
Native to Ethiopia, hardy teff can be grown on marginal land from dry mountain regions to soggy sea level. It contains more calcium than any other cultivated grain.
A century-old hybrid of wheat and rye, triticale is a dryland crop considered ideal for organic farming: it needs few pesticides, reduces soil erosion, and counteracts excess nitrogen.
Amaranth plants can yield seeds in 40 days with no water. Pair it with corn for a complete protein.
First planted as a crop in Turkey’s Karacadag Mountains 7,500 years ago, einkorn is high in B vitamins and has three to four times more beta carotene than other wheat. It thrives in nutrient-poor soil.
Millet on the Menu
Montreal-based Glutenberg is producing three brews with a blend of millet and other gluten-free grains. In Colorado, New Planet is developing a millet-based India pale ale, and Rocky Mountain Brewery recently tested a millet/buckwheat blend.
Koval, an artisanal distillery in Chicago, produces a whiskey with a mash bill of 100 percent millet, aged in charred barrels.
In Africa and India, unleavened bread is often made with millet. American bakers tend to add millet to multigrain bread recipes. For a higher millet content, Colorado-based Boulder Brands’ Udi’s offers a millet-chia bread. Or bake your own loaf with millet flour produced by Arrowhead Mills.
Michigan-based Eden Foods produces whole-grain millet from farms in the U.S. Midwest, and a Canadian-based company, Nature’s Path, makes millet puffs.