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The United Nations declares 2023 the International Year of Millets

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2023 is the international year of millets - at least the United Nation has declared that so. Millets are a type of ancient grain mostly grown in parts of Asia and Africa, and millets are nutritious and drought resistant. That last quality could make them useful to farmers in the United States, especially in places facing deepening drought. Harvest Public Media's Eva Tesfaye reports.

EVA TESFAYE, BYLINE: In central Missouri, Linus Rothermich grows corn and soybeans, the typical crops that are seen in fields across the Midwest. But he also grows something called Japanese millet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAG OPENING)

TESFAYE: He pours a bag of the seed on his kitchen table.

Oh, they're tiny.

LINUS ROTHERMICH: Yeah, actually, this is seed to be planting with.

TESFAYE: Rothermich started growing Japanese millet in 1993.

ROTHERMICH: I was a young man, and I was looking for alternatives - crops to grow to make more money. That - we just weren't making a lot of money in agriculture then.

TESFAYE: Millets are gluten-free. They look like couscous or grits when cooked, and there are different types. There's the Japanese millet Rothermich grows, pearl millet, proso millet, foxtail and the cereal grain, sorghum, is also considered a millet. And Rothermich likes that they are less expensive to grow than his corn and soybean crops. Plus, many millets are known to be incredibly drought resistant. Matt Little, an Oklahoma farmer, started growing proso millet last year.

MATT LITTLE: I'm really impressed with it. I've never seen a crop that stood the heat and stood the droughts and still made me money, OK?

TESFAYE: The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization wants to see the millets market grow in part because of their climate resiliency, but also because they're nutritious and could help diversify the global food system. But millets haven't gotten the same policy investment and research attention that corn, wheat and rice have received, says Makiko Taguchi, an agricultural officer with the organization.

MAKIKO TAGUCHI: Millets being a neglected crop, if I may put it that way. There's a lot of opportunities for millets to contribute to the sustainable development goals.

TESFAYE: Which is why the U.N. named 2023 the year of millets to bring the grains more attention. Taguchi points to the success of the U.N.'s year of quinoa. Now, millets are getting attention at the University of Missouri's Center for Regenerative Agriculture. Director Rob Myers says although the center is providing information to farmers on the grain, more research is needed to really advance the crop.

ROB MYERS: If you spend an extra million dollars on corn research, you don't necessarily advance the state of corn science very much. But if you spent a million dollars on millet research, you might suddenly create a whole lot of new information that we didn't have before.

TESFAYE: Although millets are a staple elsewhere, they don't have much of a market in the U.S. yet. Typically, the grains are used for birdseed, but they could find markets in gluten-free alternatives, livestock feed or cover crops used to prevent soil erosion.

MYERS: I expect the market opportunities to continue to expand, but, you know, it'll be incremental.

TESFAYE: In Ames, Iowa, farmer Jeff Taylor says he started growing proso millet about six years ago with the help of a privately-funded startup that's researching and breeding the grain. He says if the federal government also offered programs to help reduce the risk of growing millets, that would be a great incentive.

JEFF TAYLOR: For farmers to consider planting alternative crops outside of just corn and soybeans.

TESFAYE: That could eventually mean rows and rows of millets in the United States, or at least an increase of a crop that advocates hope will help fight food insecurity and climate change. For NPR News, I'm Eva Tesfaye in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "MASOLLAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eva Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye is a 2020 Kroc Fellow. She started in October 2020 and will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR.