September 23rd, 2009
Kansas farmers attempt an Ethiopian staple
By Scott Canon
The Kansas City Star
NICODEMUS, Kan. | A new “it” grain is blooming in the fields of northwest Kansas.
Teff has a ready-made market of Ethiopian expatriates hungering for a taste of home with virtually no supply of the grain for their beloved injera bread. Teff packs more protein per pound than wheat. And because it produces gluten-free flour, it could open a buffet line of breads and pastas to people with celiac disease.
It also can withstand drought and floods and, so far, it hasn’t fallen prey to pests that bedevil other Midwestern crops. Ethiopians have long adored the grain, raising it by hand in their highlands and making it the country’s staple cereal.
“People will definitely buy it,” said 52-year-old Gillan Alexander, a Graham County farmer who is among those experimenting with a crop that is ancient in Africa but new to Kansas.
But can America reap its harvest?
Size, it turns out, matters. A grain of teff is only slightly larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Walk through a field that Gary Alexander — a cousin of Gillan’s — has planted in wheat, and all the challenges of mechanizing teff production begin to show. Start with the ground. Squint closely enough and you see that some of the tiny reddish seeds have fallen to the dirt, lost for any chance of harvest. In fact, the word “teff” translates to “loss” in the Ethiopian language of Amarigna.
The grass has begun to shed its seeds partly because the plants have matured at dramatically different rates. Some are bright green shoots just starting out, while others are browning in retreat. No sooner does it reach maturity than the soft stem bends over. Modern farmers call it lodging, and they don’t like it. They prefer crops with good posture that stand up for vacuum-like harvest machinery. Teff has proved all the more troublesome because even at full growth, it can vary in height by a foot or more. When teff is harvested, far too much chaff ends up with the Lilliputian grain.
“You can tell how the Ethiopians get the seed by whacking at this stuff by hand,” 62-year-old Gary Alexander said. “I don’t think my hands will last that long.”
He has pieced together two-by-fours and window screen to devise a sieve, and it works well enough. So it’s possible, but not yet practical, to harvest teff commercially. Ethiopian farming of teff only supports a national per capita income of $800 a year. To make the payments on Kansas farmland, to cover the cost of 21st-century farm equipment and to leave a little profit at the end will require something more efficient.
“So far, it’s been too labor-intensive,” said Josh Coltrain of Cloud County Community College.
Coltrain has been hired by the Kansas Black Farmers Association to oversee a project paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine whether teff has potential in America’s breadbasket. Just a few hundred acres have been planted so far, scattered among several farmers in an area where one person sometimes tends more than 1,000 acres. Grants issued through the Solomon Valley Resource Conservation Development Area since the test plots were first planted in 2005 add up to less than $200,000.
The grain’s promise, Coltrain said, doesn’t come in its yields. Farmers can get perhaps three times as many bushels per acre from wheat. But the premium paid for teff — at a few health food stores and groceries that cater to African immigrants and to Ethiopian restaurants — could quickly make up for the smaller bounty.
“I get calls all the time from people wanting to buy it from us, mainly for Ethiopian restaurants and bakeries,” he said. “I have to tell them we haven’t got everything figured out yet.”
Coltrain thinks it ultimately will be a good Great Plains crop. It can withstand wild weather springs, and in many ways the dry spells common to western Kansas are similar to those in Ethiopia. The trick, he said, will be cross-breeding varieties that bring more uniformity to the plants and increase the amount of grain a teff plant produces.
Teff’s cultivation dates at least to the 13th century B.C., and the grain today hasn’t changed much. By comparison, wheat, sorghum, corn and the other grains popular in this part of the world are finely tuned, sometimes genetically modified hybrids. In the meantime, farmers and agricultural economists say teff looks worthwhile as a forage crop — cut for hay without bothering to harvest the seed.
“That’s a decent fallback,” said Bruce Anderson, a professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Teff tends to grow quickly enough to cut up to four times in a year and pack into bales. And for Kansas fields planted in fall for winter wheat, plant scientists said it makes a good rotation crop. What’s more, the softer leaves and stems make it ideal for pampered livestock such as alpacas or llamas that sometimes have difficulty digesting hay, or end up with bloody snouts from eating rougher products.
“I call it cotton candy for horses,” Gary Alexander said. “They just love it.”
The push to bring the grain to Kansas began with Edgar Hicks, an official at the Nebraska State Grange who works with minority farmers. He hopes Nicodemus will be to American teff what the Champagne region of France is to sparkling wine.
“There’s a chance to get hold of something and see it take off,” Hicks said.
In pushing for grants to explore the possibilities, he suggested a cultural connection between the Africans of Ethiopia who grow and consume teff and the African-Americans in Kansas who would feed a U.S. market. Nicodemus is the last surviving town founded by Exodusters, former slaves who came to the state in the 1870s and 1880s.
Gillan Alexander, though, said he doesn’t feel any particular connection to the Ethiopian staple.
“I’m just looking to make a living.”