Heritage grains are trendy. Walk through a health food store and see packages of grains grown long before modern seed technology created hybrid varieties, grains eaten widely outside of the developed world: amaranth, sorghum, quinoa.
But there’s another grain with tremendous potential growing on the Great Plains: millet.
Millet is drought-tolerant, gluten-free, and nutritionally it competes with quinoa, the grain health nuts are currently obsessed with. The grain, though, hasn’t quite taken off, thanks in large part to perception and production issues that will need to be shed before it can become the next big food trend.
On the surface, millet has so many things going for it. It appeals to the gluten-free crowd. It’s nutritious, high in protein. And millet is grown in America, which can be marketed to locavores. Colorado produces about half of the nation’s millet, with the rest largely coming from South Dakota and Nebraska.
But then there’s the millet connotation. Most shoppers, if they’ve heard of it at all, equate millet with bags of birdseed. Not exactly the first choice when picking out a side dish.
“It is a perception that’s still out there, but it’s actually a different millet than what we’re raising for human consumption and so we’re working very hard to introduce millet for food,” said Jean Hediger, a farmer who runs an informal co-op of millet growers based in Nunn, Colo.
When it comes to millet, Hediger said, many consumers think “bird feeder” not “dinner plate.”
Despite the birdseed problem, millet is gaining momentum, Hediger said. Her sales have increased significantly the past few years, riding the coattails of the growth in gluten-free foods.
But last year the farmers hit a huge setback when the usually drought-tolerant millet withered under exceptionally hot and dry conditions. Some farmers lost up to 80 percent of their crop.
“Last year was a disaster,” Hediger said. “You know, all of a sudden our sales are doubling and tripling, it’s really terrific, and then our buyers call and we say, ‘Well, we had a drought, we can’t get access to the crop and there’s just a limited amount.’”
And that limited amount drove up prices for millet three-fold, making it even tougher to compete on grocery store shelves.
“Introducing new products is very tough,” said Tim Larsen, who does marketing for Colorado’s Department of Agriculture. Larsen took on millet as a pet project a few years ago, after realizing the grain’s potential.
Millet is already eaten widely across Asia and Africa, but only in small pockets in North America. The market for American millet for use in bird seed blends is strong, Larsen said. There’s demand for that type of millet in European markets. But there’s lots of room for growth in millet for human consumption too.
“The whole ancient grains phenomena is new within the last year or two. So that’s a sector that has appeal. Low carbon footprint people, locavore people I certainly think could see some attributes of it,” Larsen said. “So we’re optimistic over the next couple of years we’ll see some growth.”
Unlike almost every other crop grown in the country, no trade association exists for millet. Trade associations usually pick up the task of marketing a particular crop. For millet it’s just a loose group of farmers with support from state agriculture officials promoting millet, which makes it tough to break into new markets. Millet lacks a brand and cohesive message.
The grain needs adventurous chefs and tastemakers to pick up millet for it to really take off, Larsen said.
One cook who’s taking a liking to millet is Amie Arias. She runs the Vegan Van, a vegan-friendly food truck in Denver. On warm nights she serves a dessert that includes puffed millet.
“They are a chocolate hazelnut butter rice krispie millet treat. It’s a mouthful,” Arias said.
Many customers who come to her van have never heard of millet, or are surprised to find it being used in a dessert.
“I have to explain it and sometimes people are little apprehensive that it’s not going to taste so good in a rice krispie treat, but they expect something just sweet and millet doesn’t usually fall into those categories,” Arias said.
“Sweets are always the best kind of introduction to any kind of food, because most people enjoy them and they’re not afraid to try them.”
And maybe next time, she says, they’ll try eating millet without it covered in chocolate and topped with a scoop of ice cream.
This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.