I watched a short video the other day about traditional millet production in India. (You can watch it at the end of this post, it is about 25 min long) I was saddened with this video’s portrayal of millet as a “shunned crop” by the Indian Government. Understand, that the term millet does not refer to one specific crop, but rather to a classification of similar small grain crops. I have been raising millets for a few years and find them to be delicious whether used in baking or as a whole cooked grain. I found it difficult to understand why a government in charge of feeding 1.25 billion citizens, would turn their backs on a reliable group of crops like millets. Instead, they have lured farmers away from traditional cropping systems and persuade them to grow only two crops, modern wheat and rice. Granted, I love to grow rice and wheat here on our farm, but I grow them along with many other “staple crops.” I find this situation even stranger, given that millets are far more nutritious than either wheat or rice. In almost every case, millets have double the amount of nutrients and minerals, like calcium, iron, beta carotene, etc. Millets are similar to wheat and rice in protein content and tend to be a higher source of fiber. Additionally, modern rice cultivation requires complex irrigation systems, and both rice and wheat require inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Millets are drought tolerant and perform better when dryland farmed without the use of fertilizers. They thrive in nutrient-impoverished soils, and in some cases, “sick” soils (acidic and or saline). Millets also have few pest problems in the field and during post harvest storage.
This reminds me of what has happened where I live here in northern Indiana. Elkhart County raises primarily two crops: corn and soybeans, both of which are grown as monocultures and sometimes without any rotation. Of course farmers in my area do not have the cultural memory of a traditional “farming system” dating back thousands of years like the farmers in India. I suspect though, that 100, or even 50 years ago, farms in my region would have been far more diverse than they are today. I am now aware of a number of “staple crops,” that could be grown in our area. I ask the question, why only corn and soybeans?
The real eye-opener about traditional millet production in India was the concept of multi-cropping. Most traditionally farmed millet fields in India are inherently biodiverse, comprised of 12 to 20 different crops. In parts of Northern India, farmers have practiced the Baranaja cropping system for hundreds of years (if not thousands). In this “millet-led” system are embedded 12 different crops, all growing together in the same field. The majority are millets (amaranth, pearl millet, finger millet, foxtail millet, little millet, kodo millet, proso millet, barnyard millet, and sorghum), followed by legumes, like lentils, other pulses and common dry beans. These provided nitrogen to the soil, as well as a protein rich source of food. They also interplant oil crops like sunflowers. Some multicropping systems incorporate vegetables like squash and corn, as well. (much like the Three Sisters method of Native Americans)
This holistic, multi-species system feeds the soil and provides security, to the farmer and community. Diversity always pays a dividend of security and resiliance. Of course, a field with 12 or more different crops, growing simultaneously, would be impossible to harvest with modern machinery. “Large-scale Agriculture” would frown on this as antiquated and inefficient. But this supposed inefficiency leads to the last, and possibly most intriguing aspect of this type of farming. Diverse multi-cropping systems rely on human labor to do the planting, tending, and harvesting. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace these “hands-on” techniques in this type of multi-cropping system with modern farming technology. This type of agriculture creates needed jobs in rural areas. For the community it provides security, as well as a unified purpose; two ideals lacking here at home, for the most part.
With the successful growing of sorghum, amaranth, and 4 varieties of millet (Pearl, Hell’s Canyon, Japanese Barnyard and Proso) here on my farm, I believe I would like to attempt growing all of these this next summer in multi-crop test plots. I plan to try undersowing with clover as well as interplanting with various legumes like Pinto beans and soybeans. I do all my harvesting by hand, so removing ripe grain heads and maturing bean pods, should be no problem. All of these millet varieties will not cross-pollinate with each other,
so seed saving should not be problematic. At the end of the season, depending on the perennial weed pressure, I hope to simply leave the residue on the soil surface for over-wintering. The desired goal of this experiment is to primarily improve and sustain soil fertility without the input of any fertilizer and protect the soil from erosion. Secondarily, I want to totally eliminate irrigation in these plots. Yields will be the last consideration, at least at the beginning of the experiment. Over the years I have worked with perennial poly-culture, and to a lesser degree, annual multi-cropping systems like the Three Sisters method or basic companion planting. For the annuals this usually involves 2 or 3 species at most, but the idea of growing 12 to 20 crops, occupying the same space at the same time, that is staggering, to say the least. Being annuals and not perennials, the results will be evident quicker. Failures will have a built in “do-over” factor, from season to season. Of course, one has to consider that Northern Indiana is not sub-tropical India, nor is it the Alpine Himalayas. Much trial and error awaits, but that’s the whole point–learning.
One last consideration. I think it is a shame, that for the most part in this country, millet is what you feed birds in the winter. I have come across numerous companies offering millet seed for wildlife plots, albeit this is not a bad thing. I have found few seed suppliers offering millet seed for gardeners or homesteaders looking to improve their overall food security, or increase diversity within their farms or gardens. If you have not tried eating millet or growing millet, I encourage you to try both.