Grain marketing consultant Edgar Hicks and Nicodemus residents listen to Evert discuss tef genetics at a field day.
Kansas farmers seek a market niche with Ethiopian crop
Evert shows the various test plots to members of the Kansas Black Farmers Association and USDA representatives.
The town of Nicodemus is—like many rural communities throughout Kansas—struggling. The freed-slave settlers who established the black township in the mid-1800s faced harsh living conditions, hostile climate and lack of adequate supplies to build Nicodemus into a thriving town. Generations later, the remaining descendents of those settlers are facing challenges of their own – intensive drought, unstable commodity prices and increasing operating costs. The farmers of Nicodemus, however, are looking for opportunity through a cultural crop connection.
Armed with a grant from the USDA, K-State researchers and the Kansas Black Farmers Association have come together to explore the potential of growing tef, an Ethiopian cereal grain, in western Kansas. Tef is grown across eastern Africa and is Ethiopia’s staple grain, according to K-State Research and Extension. Its tiny seeds are used to produce flour to make flat, spongy injera bread, which is present at nearly every Ethiopian meal. Farmers are hoping that through research and development tef can become an alternative crop and provide supplemental income.
Ethiopia meets Kansas
Before becoming a graduate student in agronomy at K-State, Sarah Evert had never heard of tef, like most Kansans. Evert says she was looking for a research project close to home and relevant to northwestern Kansas. Despite her lack of tef knowledge, she decided it could be worthwhile to try something new. For the past two years she has devoted her master’s degree thesis to adapting tef to grow productively in western Kansas. She has worked with the farmers, experimenting on growing tef at different planting rates and using various planting techniques, to see what works best.
“I’ve been focusing on the agronomic potential — figuring out how and when to plant, finding which lines of tef are adaptable to the Great Plains and determining how to harvest,” Evert says. “We had to think outside the box, it didn’t always grow the best and the team had to replant and be diligent.”
When crossing the globe with a crop there can be a lot of difficulty in making it suitable for production in a different country, says Scott Staggenborg, K-State associate professor in agronomy. “The challenges are the usual for a new crop,” Staggenborg says. “Do producers have access to a viable seed source? Do we completely understand how to manage it in terms of weed control, fertilizer and harvest management, etc. Do we have the right equipment to plant and harvest it?”
Converting tef into a machinery friendly crop is not an easy task, Evert says. “In Africa a farmer will take a handful of seed, scatter it across the field, then work it into the ground using livestock pulling large branches,” Evert says. “Harvesting is also done completely by hand in Africa. Kansas farmers will not agree to those primitive techniques.”
Tef production in western Kansas is going to be greatly different from tef production in Ethiopia, says Staggenborg. “As far as the upside, tef handles the drought and high temperatures experienced in Kansas,” Staggenborg says. “These conditions have limited the adoption and acceptance of other crops such as soybeans and other dry beans in western Kansas.”
Small seed, mighty potential
Although people around the world pronounce and spell it differently when translated the word tef literally means “lost,” which refers to the tiny size of the seed. However, roughly one pound of the petite tef seed can produce up to a ton of grain in only 12 weeks.
While the seed may be small it certainly is big in nutritional value. According to Lost Crops of Africa; tef has a 14 percent average protein level, as well as iron and calcium contents (22 milligrams and 125 milligrams, respectively), which are higher than those of wheat, barley or sorghum. The attractive nutritional profile tef boasts is impressive and unlike the traditional Kansas grain crops, Hicks says. High levels of amino acids, calcium, carbohydrates, fiber and minerals are also found in tef. The crop’s low gluten content makes it an alternative for people who are sensitive to wheat gluten or have Celiac Disease.
Use of tef is not limited solely to flour however, says Evert. Livestock forage, athlete nutrition, floral design and cover cropping are some of the more common applications, and numerous usage possibilities may exist.
No matter how high the yield, a farmer’s crop is hollow without a demand in the market. Market strategizing was a driving factor in the tef project. Grain marketing consultant, Edgar Hicks says tef presents an opportunity to produce something with a value-added component not found in other crops.
“There is definitely a market for tef in the United States,” Hicks says. “People with Celiac Disease and the one million people of Ethiopian descent must look elsewhere for their staple food.”
With only two commercial tef producers in the country, in Idaho and Ohio, the farmers of Nicodemus are hoping they too can capitalize on the product demand. “There is already a demand for tef,” Evert says. “The challenge will be communicating with others that there is a supply.”
This unheard of crop seems to have everything a producer could ask for, but tef’s low gluten content, nutritional qualities, drought resistance and market potential are simply added features to the cultural ties that first drew Hicks to the crop. “Raising tef is about more than selling a commodity; it goes beyond agriculture to a whole different level,” Hicks says. “It represents the Ethiopian people and their culture. Ethiopians want to share everything they have just as they share their injera (bread), and that is the spirit embodied by tef.”
Hicks says, while traditional Kansas crops are productive, they generally don’t offer the intrinsic reward found with tef. “I hope in time tef will benefit the region economically as well as emotionally,” Hicks says.
Opportunity to grow
Vast, rolling fields of tef will not appear anytime soon, Evert says. However, tef research test plots several acres in size will continue to bring hope to the farmers of Nicodemus. Much like a newly planted seed, the Kansas tef project will need constant nurturing and care before fully maturing into a reliable alternative crop. “It has been a great project to be a part of,” Evert says. “I was able to work with some very progressive people who were open-minded to change. As far as tef goes it’s not a traditional Kansas crop, but it does offer multiple opportunities.”