Is millet the next quinoa?

Colorado farmers see vast potential in nutritious dryland crop
Food Industry

Sure, Colorado is the highest state in terms of mean elevation and sees the most skier days and has the highest per-capita economic impact from craft brewing.

But one superlative flies under the radar in the Centennial State: growing proso millet.

Proso millet is a drought-resistant grass that produces a small cereal grain after a 60-day growing season. That makes Colorado perfect for it.

Millet thrives on the Eastern Plains. Farmers grew it on 320,000 acres in Colorado – or about 1% of the state’s farmland – in 2019, with a harvest of more than 11 million bushels, or $61 million.

Those numbers represent about two-thirds of the total U.S. acreage (506,000) and production (16.6 million bushels) for the year, up from about 50% in 2015.

Chris Stum sees potential for more. He grew millet on about a third of his family’s 4,000-acre farm near Towner, Colorado in 2019. When his grandfather started growing millet in the area in 1960s, Stum says, it “wasn’t his first option. Wheat didn’t make it, and it was our spring crop option.”

The increasing severity and regularity of droughts in the past 25 years has made millet even more attractive for dryland farmers who, like Stum, operate without irrigation. “Around 2002, we shifted over from primarily wheat to primarily millet,” he says. “It really came down to water.”

The market has been somewhat volatile. Millet prices spiked to nearly $50 per hundredweight in 2012 before slumping to $5.50 in 2013. “That really shook up the market bad,” Stum says. “You want a more stable price [for retail].”

To help steady the ship, Stum has served as president of the High Plains Millet Association since it launched in 2017. The organization now has about 100 members, 80 of them in Colorado.

A checkoff program, where a small per-bushel fee would go back to fund millet marketing and research initiatives, narrowly lost a vote among Colorado millet producers in 2018. “I really wanted it,” Stum says.

The next quinoa?

In places like China and Egypt, millet has been part of culinary traditions for millennia. “It’s an ancient grain,” says John Addison, marketing specialist with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “It’s been around 7,000 to 10,000 years. In India, it’s basically a staple.”

But it’s not close to that level in the U.S. About 80% of Colorado millet is exported; Asia is the top market.

When it stays at home, most of Colorado’s millet is used as bird seed, much of it by way of Seattle-based Global Harvest Foods’ plant in Akron, Colorado.

“Some of the millet guys are like, ‘How come quinoa is booming? Why can’t millet do this?'” Addison says. “If there was more demand for millet in the human food chain, especially in the United States, the price would go up. But it’s not so easy.”

It should sell itself. “Millet is the most nutritious, least allergenic crop,” says Jean Hediger, president of Golden Prairie in Nunn, Colorado. “It’s a fabulous grain. Tastes great, very versatile — it can be used for so many different things. It’s a Colorado grain. It helps support American agriculture, which I think a lot of consumers care about how.”

Why import quinoa from South America, she argues, when millet is a more sustainable, less expensive food that’s grown locally?

Golden Prairie is one of the largest suppliers of organic millet in the country. Hediger says the company sells more than 1 million pounds of millet a year in 25- and 50-pound sacks. “If you buy organic millet almost anywhere in the United States, it’s coming from Golden Prairie,” she touts.

The Hediger family has been growing millet as a spring crop for more than 15 years, and plants it on about 800 acres in a given year. Golden Prairie also works with other farms that grow

organic millet on about 30,000 acres in all in Colorado as well as Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and the Dakotas.

Bay State Milling processes Golden Prairie’s millet in Sterling. Grocery stores sell the finished product in bulk, and a wide range of food manufacturers as well as breweries and distilleries use it as a raw ingredient.

Millet is already in Kind Bars, whiskeys from Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins and Chicago-based KOVAL Distillery, beers from Holidaily Brewing Co. in Golden, flour from Denver-based Ardent Mills, and Millet Tots from Boulder’s RollinGreens. Some chefs, like Erik Skokan of Boulder’s renowned Black Cat Bistro, have embraced it as well.

“Millet’s really been discovered in the last year, very much so,” Hediger says. “Remember, 10 years ago nobody knew the word quinoa, and now it’s the hottest thing.”

To further elevate millet, innovation is needed, Hediger says, noting that universities develop new wheat varieties every year as they’ve neglected millet since the early 1990s. “New varieties that benefit agriculture and consumers need to be developed, but there’s not funds to do that,” she notes.

Processing is another issue. Dehulling capacity is “a bottleneck in Colorado,” Addison says, noting that Bay State is the only large-scale operation geared toward human consumption in the state. “We have to have facilities to dehull our millet. When you take it into human consumption, you’ve got to take the hull off the millet. It’s too hard – you won’t digest it.”

While she’s “really happy” with Bay State, Hediger says the millet industry as a whole would benefit from more dehulling capacity in Colorado. The catch? “It’s a big deal to build a millet facility. There’s a reason why there aren’t a lot more of them in the country, because it’s a complicated process.”

Stum says he looked into going into millet processing himself but hit several roadblocks. “I’ve pursued it, but I ran out of time and I ran out of money and – the bigger thing – I ran out of personnel. You need somebody to run it.”

He adds, “You need more people in the U.S., preferably locally but in the U.S., who are processing and FDA-certified to sell into human consumption. That’s probably the biggest hurdle, all of the inspections. That takes a lot of money.”

It’s supply and demand, Stum says, with sky-high dehulling demand and limited capacity. “Maybe people will see opportunity there and that can balance itself out.”

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