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As Farmers Face a Warmer Future, an Ancient Grain Shows Promise

BY EVA TESFAYE

THE MIDWEST IS KNOWN for its rows and rows of corn and soybeans that uniformly cover the landscape.

But in central Missouri, farmer Linus Rothermich disrupts the usual corn and soybean rotation with Japanese millet. He has been growing it since 1993.

“Golly, I have to think how far back that is,” he said. “I was a young man and I was looking for alternative crops to grow to make more money. We just weren’t making a lot of money in agriculture then.”

Compared to his corn and soybean crops, he spends a lot less on Japanese millet. Because its growing season is shorter, it fits perfectly into the rotation of the crops he already grows. It’s working so well for him that he wants to keep the grain to himself.

“I have recommended it to other farmers, as long as it’s not my Japanese millet,” he joked, pointing out prices likely would drop if a lot of other farmers start growing it.

But these humble grains soon may garner more attention after the United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. It’s part of an effort to encourage more awareness and a bigger market for millets, which the UN points out are extremely sustainable, weather resilient, nutritious, and could help diversify the global food system.

However, the grains have not gotten nearly the same level of policy and research attention compared to corn and soybeans in the United States, or even compared to other crops in the global market.

“Millets had gotten sort of marginalized in its place, and therefore, it didn’t get the same investment and research attention that maize, wheat, and rice have received over the last decades,” said Makiko Taguchi, an agricultural officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “so in that sense we consider millets as one of the sort of neglected crops.”

She said that millets have an opportunity to assist with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and that hopefully will bring these climate-friendly grains more attention – similar to the success of the UN’s International Year of Quinoa in 2013.


THERE ARE SEVERAL different kinds of millets. In addition to Rothermich’s Japanese millet, there is pearl millet, foxtail millet, proso millet, and more. Sorghum can also be considered a millet.

Millets tend to need less fertilizer and are more resistant to insects and diseases (although sometimes birds like to eat them). Farmers can also use most of the same equipment for millets as they do for corn and soybeans. And while, so far, millets don’t produce the same yields as those commodity crops, Rothermich says it’s worth it.

“It’s not as high-yielding, but it also has lower inputs on it,” he said.

Perhaps more important today in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains, many types of millets are known to be incredibly drought resistant.

Matt Little, a farmer just outside of Arnett, Oklahoma, started growing proso millet last year. He expected the crop to burn up alongside his wheat crop during the extreme heat and the drought, but he managed to harvest and sell the crop.

“I’m really impressed with it. I’ve never seen a crop that stood the heat and stood the drought and still made me money,” he said.

Millets are also getting attention at the University of Missouri’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture, which is providing information to farmers on the grains.

The center’s director, Rob Myers, said that millets are versatile. Proso and pearl millet would do well in drier states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Perhaps more important today in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains, many types of millets are known to be incredibly drought resistant.

Matt Little, a farmer just outside of Arnett, Oklahoma, started growing proso millet last year. He expected the crop to burn up alongside his wheat crop during the extreme heat and the drought, but he managed to harvest and sell the crop.

“I’m really impressed with it. I’ve never seen a crop that stood the heat and stood the drought and still made me money,” he said.

Millets are also getting attention at the University of Missouri’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture, which is providing information to farmers on the grains.

The center’s director, Rob Myers, said that millets are versatile. Proso and pearl millet would do well in drier states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

For example, millet yields would be easier to improve than getting corn to take up less water, according to James Schnable, a professor at the University of Nebraska. He and his father, Patrick Schnable, a professor at Iowa State University, co-founded the start-up, Dryland Genetics. A lack of funding for research is partly why they started a company to research and breed proso millet.

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