Can Ancient Grains find their way in modern agriculture?
In November of 2014, an unassuming story appeared in the pages of National Geographic magazine. Little more than a blurb, the modest article promised big things. According to three short paragraphs on a single, glossy page, ancient grains were about to arrive. “Make Way for Millet,” the headline crowed.
For ASA and CSSA member Dipak Santra, that tiny article offered a validation of sorts for what has become his life’s work.
“In the U.S., unfortunately, the moment you say ‘millet’ people immediately think bird food, not human food,” says Santra who, as an associate professor and alternative crops breeding specialist at the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle and Research Extension Center, has spent the last nine years working to change that perception.
The word, “millet,” refers to a number of annual cereal grasses that include several distinct species with names like pearl, finger, foxtail, and proso. And, indeed, most millet grown in the U.S. is either for the birds—tiny, round grains destined for backyard feeders and parakeet cages—or harvested as a whole plant and dried for forage for cattle, pigs, and chickens.
The National Geographic article, Santra thought, was a sign that things were changing. Perhaps millet in America might one day be seen as it is in many other countries—a valuable and nutritious food for humans and a worthwhile crop to put in the ground. Or at least it could be viewed as a commodity with a higher calling than birdseed.
To Santra, promoting the tasty golden grain, specifically proso millet, just makes sense. It ticks off nearly every box a health-conscious consumer could want—millet is high in fiber, chock full of essential minerals, and to top it off, gluten free. What’s more, it has an impeccable environmental resume.
“All millet has similar characteristics,” Santra says. “It is drought tolerant. It takes limited water to grow. It has a short growing season and needs little to no synthetic fertilizer to get a decent yield.” As climate models call for more frequent droughts and synthetic fertilizers face more scrutiny for environmental impacts, millet could become more palatable for farmers and foodies alike.
Santra loves to show off a side-by-side comparison of a field planted with corn and a field planted with millet taken three miles apart during Nebraska’s historical drought year in 2012. The corn is withered and brown while the millet is lush and green. He sasy it shows that “this is a perfect crop for a changing climate.”