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Can Millet Take On Quinoa? First, It'll Need A Makeover

This millet field outside Nunn, Colo., is nearing harvest time, when the grain turns from green to a golden color. (Harvest Public Media)

Walk through a health food store and you'll find amaranth, sorghum, quinoa — heritage grains that have been staples around the world for generations. Americans are just discovering them.

There's another age-old grain that grows right here on the Great Plains: millet.

The millet plant is drought-tolerant, and nutritionally it competes with quinoa, the protein-rich South American grain that American farmers are clamoring to grow. Millet, though, hasn't quite taken off like quinoa has, thanks in large part to perception and production issues.

On the surface, millet has many things going for it. It's gluten-free (appealing for people trying to avoid gluten) and high in protein. And it 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 millet's image problem. Most shoppers, if they've heard of it at all, equate millet with bags of birdseed. It's 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," says Jean Hediger, a farmer who runs an informal co-op of millet growers based in Nunn, Colo.

When it comes to millet, Hediger says, many consumers think "bird feeder" not "dinner plate."

Despite the birdseed issue, millet is gaining momentum with consumers, Hediger says. Her sales have increased significantly over the past few years.

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," says Hediger. "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.' "

That limited amount drove up prices for millet threefold, making it even tougher to compete on grocery store shelves.

"Introducing new products is very tough," says 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. Unlike almost every other crop grown in the country, no trade association exists to market millet. Instead, 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.

The grain needs adventurous chefs and tastemakers to promote it to really take off, Larsen says.

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," says Arias.

Many customers who come to her van have never heard of millet or are surprised to find it 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.

Luke Runyon reports from Colorado for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. A version of this story originally appeared on Harvest Public Media's site.

Copyright 2014 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://kunc.org.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who spend time in the kitchen and think a lot about their ingredients have probably heard of quinoa, the ancient mother grain of the Incas which is now promoted as a super food, alternative to rice. There's another grain sitting on store shelves with potential: millet. Like quinoa, millet is drought-tolerant, gluten-free and nutrient-dense - but has not quite taken off.

As Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports, millet has a way to go before it can become the next big thing.

LUKE KENYON, BYLINE: On a warm evening in Denver, Amie Arias preps her food truck, the Vegan Van, for the dinner crowd.

AMIE ARIAS: We've got pulled jackfruit pork. We've got fake chicken and waffles.

KENYON: And then for dessert, Arias pulls out a metal baking sheet and peels away a layer of wax paper.

ARIAS: They are a chocolate hazelnut butter, Rice Krispie millet treat. It's a mouthful.

KENYON: She tops the treat with a scoop of vegan ice cream. Few other cooks have latched onto the grain as they have with other ancient grains, like quinoa. Millet seeds are tiny, round in shape and can be white, yellow or red.

ARIAS: 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.

KENYON: On the surface, millet has so many things going for it: It's gluten-free, nutritious, versatile and grown in America. Colorado produces about half of the nation's millet, with the rest coming from South Dakota and Nebraska. But the grain also has some big hurdles to face. Most shoppers - if they've heard of it at all - equate millet with bags of birdseed.

JEAN HEDIGER: It is a perception that's still out there.

KENYON: Jean Hediger farms millet in Northern Colorado.

HEDIGER: 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.

KENYON: Hediger says millet is gaining momentum. Demand for organic millet has been on the rise, riding the coattails of the growth in gluten-free foods. But last year...

HEDIGER: Last year was a disaster.

KENYON: The usually drought-tolerant millet withered under exceptionally hot and dry conditions. Some farmers lost up to 80 percent of their crop.

HEDIGER: You know, all of a sudden, our sales are doubling, tripling. It's really terrific. And then our buyers call and we say we had a drought. We can't get access to the crop, and there's just a limited amount.

KENYON: And that limited amount drove up prices, making it even harder to compete on grocery store shelves.

TIM LARSEN: Introducing new products is very tough.

KENYON: Tim Larsen is in marketing for Colorado's Department of Agriculture. He 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, only in small pockets in North America.

LARSEN: The whole ancient-grains phenomenon 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.

KENYON: Unlike almost every other crop grown in the country, there's no trade association or marketing group for millet, just a loose collection of farmers with support from state ag officials. Millet lacks a brand and cohesive message. Larsen says the grain needs the help of adventurous chefs and tastemakers.

Back at the Vegan Van in Denver, Amie Arias jots down the final few menu items on a whiteboard, with the puffed millet krispie leading the list.

ARIAS: Sweets are always, I think, the best kind of introduction to any kind of food, because most people enjoy them and they're not afraid to try them.

KENYON: And maybe next time, she says, they'll try eating millet without it covered in vegan chocolate and topped with a scoop of vegan ice cream.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, which is a public radio reporting project focusing on agriculture and food production. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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