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Cultivating new markets for proso millet

Growers hope to expand the market share for human consumption — and boost yields and end-use quality through genetics.

There aren't many places in the U.S. where proso millet is grown as a cash crop. Nebraska is one of the top three states for proso millet production, along with its neighbors, Colorado and South Dakota.

It's something Leon Kriesel has grown on his farm near Gurley, Neb., in the southern Panhandle for about 50 years. In Nebraska, he's the only person selling certified proso millet seed.

Kriesel is no stranger to different cropping systems. His family has grown certified seed since his grandfather, Ernest Kriesel, started Kriesel Certified Seed in the 1920s. Leon himself got started early taking the title of Junior Grain Show Champion at the Nebraska State Fair in 1972, the summer before he became a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

That next year, he began certified seed production using 4 bushels of seed awarded to him for his 4-H project at the state fair. A member of the Nebraska Crop Improvement Association, he grows certified seed of several different small grains, including proso millet, winter wheat, spring barley and oats.

"We've probably raised every proso millet variety the university has released," Kriesel says. "We were in the seed business and saw the need. Proso came into this country in the 1960s. The first proso millet was a common variety. Out of that, UNL developed a variety called 'Panhandle,' and Panhandle came out in the late '60s. It gave us more consistent yield and didn't lodge as bad."

His seed market mostly falls within a 200-mile radius, including parts of Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas.

For the most part, proso millet in Nebraska and Colorado is grown for bird seed — most local elevators handle it. In 2018, UNL released a new variety of waxy proso millet — which first got its start in 2004 by UNL's millet breeder at the time, David Baltensperger. And Kriesel notes with the new variety, Plateau, more focus is being placed on the human consumption market.

Most of the demand for proso millet in human food is in Asian countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. While there isn't much demand in domestic markets yet, Kriesel notes, most of the domestic demand likely will be in organic food — and it will take the right steps to build those markets.

"We don't want to overdo it — we want to take our time and take the right steps to develop a market," Kriesel says. "Waxy millet production has to meet market demand. A market needs to be developed, so it's serving the needs of both the seller and the buyer. I think that's one of the things that shows up sometimes, that there is a need but there isn't the ability to meet that need."

"When a broker asks if there is waxy millet available, it has to be machine-cleaned once for the buyer," he adds. "There aren't many places with the capability of doing that and keeping it pure. If a local elevator has the capability to run that millet over a cleaner, but that's a small portion of their millet crop, the question is, can they clean up good enough to meet purity specs of the end buyer? If that market isn't big enough, some people don't want to mess with it."

On that note, breeders also are working to make proso millet a more attractive crop to growers.

Proso millet is water-use efficient and provides several benefits in the rotation. Kriesel notes by saving water with proso, he typically sees a yield bump in his following winter wheat crop.

"We've found when we put proso in a rotation, you can get two crops in three years, rather than a crop every other year," Kriesel says. "It does treat the soil a little differently. It's not a deep moisture extraction plant. It uses moisture in the top 3 feet, and not much below that. Proso millet is one of the most water-use efficient crops we have."

If proso millet is planted on time, and the field gets at least a half-inch of rain, Kriesel notes it's common to get 30 or even 35 bushels per acre. One of the challenges moving forward for breeders is building on proso's natural water-use efficiency and creating higher-yielding varieties.

The biggest challenge in proso millet production, however, is marketing, Kriesel says.

"Millet tends to be cyclical," he says. "If you can store it and hit the high end in the cycle, you can probably do pretty well." Often, prices are close to about $8 to $10 per hundredweight, but Kriesel notes sometimes prices have jumped up to $15 to $30 for four-year periods.

That's where new markets in human food would be beneficial. Proso millet is low in gluten and has no taste, so it's typically used as a nutritious additive. For human consumption, millet is typically hulled, and to a lesser extent, it's sometimes ground into millet flour. So, one end-use trait that's often emphasized by breeders is seed size.

"You want a variety with a large seed, so that when you dehull it, the inner berry has a good yield," Kriesel says. "Size also determines how easily the seed can be hulled. A smaller kernel will be harder to dehull than a bigger kernel. When you're dehulling millet, running it through two rollers, it's an art. You need to crack it just enough so the hull falls off, or you're going to make flour. If the crop isn't uniform enough, and they have to keep adjusting that gap, it makes it more difficult."

Finding additional end uses for the small grain crop also is important. And proso millet has found a home in markets such as dog food, poultry food and the craft brewing industry. However, to truly expand acres, Kriesel believes human consumption will have to grow.

"The industry likes the millets we have to a degree," Kriesel says. "But I think farmers would like a new release — something with an improvement in yield and standability. We haven't had a new release recently. We have to find a market that's big enough for a good expansion of acres, and one that's open to common use. It's probably going to have to be for human consumption."

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