A John Deere Publication
millet grain in wooden bowl with spoon

There's a growing realization of the human health and environmental quality benefits that would result from increasing ancient grains like proso millet and sorghum in the North American food market.

Agriculture, Education   June 01, 2023

Millet's Moment


The United Nations draws attention to this ancient grain.

Millet has its sights set on being the new superfood. Packed with protein, fiber, and minerals and with a host of nutritional benefits, this gluten-free ancient grain is vying for attention from all segments of the global food chain.

To that end, the United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. The world body stated that 'the millets, (which include sorghum, teff and others) have the potential to address climate change, food security, and dietary concerns, but enhanced investment, innovation and education are needed.'

"We're hoping that millet will benefit much like quinoa did when a similar UN designation targeted that crop in 2013," says Jean Hediger, who grows organic proso millet near Nunn, Colorado.

"Almost nobody knew about quinoa (produced primarily in South America) before that and now it's extremely popular. Millet grows here, has almost the same nutritional benefits, tastes great, is less expensive, and is sustainable, so why can't the same thing happen for it?" adds Hediger.

Quinoa's soaring success is truly enviable. Its market value has increased at an annual rate of 13% since 2013 and is expected to reach $149 billion by 2027. Countries with research efforts in quinoa grew from only 5% prior to 2013 to 45% today.

Various species of millet also provide a low-input source of livestock feed and rapid growth in cover crop situations.


Beyond bird feed. Millet has been a staple food item in many areas of Africa and Asia for literally thousands of years. However, in North America most millet harvested as grain is either exported or goes into the bird feed market. "Proso millet is in our crop rotation with corn and wheat because its input costs are the lowest and drought tolerance is the greatest, but increasing a domestic food market would certainly stabilize prices and increase production," says Towner, Colorado, grower Chris Stum, president of the High Plains Millet Association.

Hediger heads Golden Prairie (goldenprairie.com) which is a group of organic millet growers from the Rocky Mountain states who are working to build that market. "We're marketing proso millet from roughly 30,000 acres to all 50 states," she says.

"Consumers are beginning to recognize the health benefits of this low-cost, ancient grain. And, there's also a growing consumer awareness of the environmental merits of the millets."

Climate smart. Food allergies that impacted both herself and her family lead Joni Kindwall-Moore to become a millet enthusiast. In 2015 she founded Snacktivist Foods (snacktivistfoods.com) to bring the benefits of the millets into modern diets.

"We need to embrace the forgotten crops that brought stability to ancient civilizations. An expanded market for millet would bring badly needed diversity into cereal grain production and that would provide soil health and other environmental benefits."

Kindwall-Moore cites recent research that found feeding proso millet—which can be grown under stressful dryland conditions—to chickens, rather than irrigated corn, would save 16 gallons of water per egg. "The time is rapidly coming when the world will have to wake up to these types of resource and environmental situations."

By definition, sorghum also falls under the United Nations' declaration, and spokesmen are quick to point out its nutritional and environmental benefits.

"Sorghum is a non-GMO ancient grain that checks a lot of the boxes that consumers are looking for these days," says John Duff, sustainability consultant with National Sorghum Producers.

"It's an important crop among resource-conscious farmers producing nutritious grain with less water and fertilizer," adds Duff. ‡

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