Warm-Season Annual Grains
Japanese foxtail millet
Forever Green researchers are initiating a program to investigate how summer annual “ancient grain” crops can be integrated into Minnesota environments and crop rotations. These grains include sorghum, teff, buckwheat, pearl millet, Japanese millet, foxtail millet, and proso millet. Each of these grains has a long and rich culinary and agronomic history, but none is currently well known in Midwestern farming systems. However, an opportunity to rediscover these crops is growing as consumers show increasing interest in including ancient grains in their diets for a variety of reasons: greater nutrition, unique flavors, gluten-free options, and the lack of GMOs. Ancient grains are often consumed as whole grains, which are healthier than refined, processed foods such as white rice or pasta. Some, such as teff, are staple crops in the cultures of new immigrant groups, whose traditions are bringing new richness to Minnesota’s food markets and culture. Ancient grains have even become prevalent in mass-marketed products, including crackers and breakfast cereals.
We have planted preliminary observational plots of several of these species, and we believe that they are suitable for Minnesota environments. Our research seeks to remedy the lack of basic agronomic information on these ancient grain crops by determining their yield, maturity, and nutritional content. The development of a body of local research and experience with the performance of these crops under the conditions that they will experience in our state will allow growers to accurately assess the risks and benefits of adopting them, and proceed with confidence.
These crops offer growers the opportunity to expand both the economic and the biological diversity of their farms. Because they have different growing seasons and are from different plant families than those represented in the current suite of commonly grown crops in Minnesota, including them in a crop rotation can help disrupt the life cycles of disease and pest organisms, reducing the need for expensive and potentially toxic pesticides. Cropping system diversity can buffer the effects of weather variation, as some crops will struggle when other crops thrive under different weather conditions. Crop diversity also means a diversity in revenue streams, including access to potentially lucrative specialty grain and oilseed markets.
In coordination with broader Forever Green goals, the ancient grain research program will facilitate the expansion of cover crop and winter annual grain planting in Minnesota. Planting of summer annual grains has the potential to expand the diversity of crop options for Minnesota growers to include not only the “ancient grains” themselves, but also improved opportunities for new crops on the winter side of the rotation. Because summer grains can be planted in June or July, they allow over-wintering cover crops or winter annual crops from the previous season to develop spring biomass before termination. This will not only allow farmers to reap the soil protection and fertility benefits of cover crops, but will allow for valuable double cropping systems. In double cropping, a winter grain—including traditional crops such as winter wheat as well as newly developed pennycress and camelina cultivars—can be followed by a summer grain to provide two cash crops in a single year, a possibility which has previously proved difficult to achieve in Minnesota’s short growing season.
Our research will include analysis of the nutritional value of these grains, as well as their market potential, in order to ensure that they will be well positioned in Minnesota’s food and farming economy. By integrating information on market demand and value of these grains to end users, we can increase the chances of commercial success. Minnesota is a major center of consumer interest in local and sustainable foods, including an unusually strong co-op grocery market with extensive offerings of unprocessed bulk grains, representing a unique opportunity for short-chain marketing of specialty crops.
Because our project proposes to examine both the agronomics and markets, there will be many beneficiaries, including local organic farmers who will have more tools for crop diversification, consumers who will have access to healthy local foods, and educators who will have updated agronomic and market information to advise producers. This will provide a foundation for market development that may lead to opportunities for regional grain processors and mills. Sales and interest in ancient grains continue to grow – our project will help Minnesota producers seize this opportunity.
Jim Anderson, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
Adria Fernandez, Research Assistant, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
Craig Sheaffer, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
M. Scott Wells, Assistant Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics