One of the best alternatives to wheat on the High Plains is millet, which is well adapted to the climate, ideal for preventing wind erosion and a generous source of plant residue.

One of the best alternatives to wheat on the High Plains is millet, which is well adapted to the climate, ideal for preventing wind erosion and a generous source of plant residue.

The drawback is that prices are low, and handlers and processors are few.

Now a core group of farmers, researchers and industry advocates are hoping to make the crop more viable by forming a new grower association and possibly a federal marketing order.

An organizational meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 24 at the USDA-ARS Central Great Plains Research Station at Akron.

“We’re going to hopefully put together an association that day. We’ll have all of the paperwork ready,” said Lane Stumm, owner and operator of Faithwalk Farms of Towner, Colorado.

Millet is a hardy, versatile crop but has yet to realize its full potential.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve become mostly millet growers over any other crop,” Stumm said. “The reason we started doing it is that we were in a no-till situation, and we wanted to get as much residue on the ground as possible. It actually holds the ground better than wheat stubble, and, of all the crops we raise in the High Plains, it’s the most water efficient.”

Millet is widely adapted but it doesn’t make economic sense to grow it without a realistic delivery point.

“We are kind of at the south end of the millet production, primarily because of where the markets are,” he said. “The markets are north of us, basically north of I-70.”

Handlers and processors that will accept the grain include Golden Prairie Inc. at Nunn, Perry Brothers farm supply at Otis, Clean Dirt Farm at Sterling, and a few other de-hullers, distributors and maltsters concentrated in northern Colorado, Stumm said.

Millet is mostly used for feed, with some of it going into the export market. Only a small fraction currently goes into the domestic food market.

“Most of the millet grown is used for birdseed, but we are wanting to flip that,” Stumm said. “We’d like to have it the other way around.”

Stumm’s son Chris and Chris’ wife Jennifer are among those exploring millet’s food use potential. They’ve started grinding and selling millet flour under the brand name CJ Milling, which operates as a home-based business under the state’s cottage food law.

Sorghum producers have already started to forge a niche within the expanding market for gluten-free, non-genetically modified specialty grain products, and millet fans hope to follow a similar path.

“Puffed millet makes really good cereal,” Chris Stumm said. “Sometimes you’ll find it in energy bars.”

The Stumms hope that the new organization can be used to create greater consumer awareness and attract research and market development funding.

The organizational process started a couple of years ago, with involvement from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado State University, University of Nebraska-Scottsbluff plant breeder Dipak Santra, the Colorado Seed Growers Association and several processors and marketers. Darrell Hanavan, the retired long-time director of the Colorado Wheat organization, is helping to assemble the necessary paperwork.

The group might end up casting a broader net beyond just millet growers, Stumm said.

“We’re leaning toward calling it something like ‘alternative crops of the High Plains,’ so it’s not just limited to millet but includes things like rye, amaranth, and other crops that can be raised in this corridor,” he said. “We don’t want to push anybody out of the opportunity to be involved, and maybe we can draw a little more attention that might help us get grants for research and marketing.”

“We’re going to put that idea out there and see what everybody settles on,” he said.