Millets and Multi-Cropping

Pearl Millet

Pearl Millet

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?

millets3 1000 by 750The 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,

Hell's Canyon Millet

Hell’s Canyon Millet

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.

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8 Responses to Millets and Multi-Cropping

  1. Hi John,
    great work you are doing! Your article was excellent and very thought provoking (thanks for including the documentary). I look forward to hearing about your poly-cropping experience.

    I am experimenting a little with grains in irrigated bio-intensive raised beds as calorie and carbon crop rotations with cool season legumes. Irrigation being an unfortunate necessity during the warm season here in Mediterranean climate California. I like your idea to experiment with sorghum, amaranth , four millets, and legumes in an Indiana polyculture. I will be trying something similar in a bio-intensive bed format here in Livermore. Any suggestions as far as appropriately matched drought-worthy legumes for the millets? I’m wondering about cow peas /southern peas, etc…?

    I will get my order in this week if possible

    Happy new year, Bruce

    • John Sherck says:

      Hello Bruce,
      This version of polyculture is really new to me. I am planning to try a various mix in 2 or 3
      different plots (500 square foot – 1000 square foot each). In India they are using lentils and
      gram beans. I have grown Moth beans here in Indiana. They did fairly well given all the rain we
      have. They are very low growing and don’t mind a little shade. I have heard of Moth beans being
      grown under a corn canopy in Texas. I am going to try some various soybeans (not very drought
      tolerant), but maybe with a living mulch and buckwheat residue, enough moisture will be held in
      the soil. My best case scenario would be to find a mix that is both wet tolerant and drought
      tolerant. This has been a reflection of our local weather over the last three years. Three
      seasons ago we had the worst drought I could remember and this last year was one of the wettest
      seasons I have ever encountered. Figures.

      Let me know any other way I can help you. Please keep me informed of your experiment.


  2. Mike Wilson says:

    Whenever one sees something that defies common sense, look for the government label.
    I’m looking forward with great anticipation to this years growing season. Our recent experience has been similar to yours, with the last two summers being much wetter than usual and ill suited for small grain. It’s just frustrating to have to combine in mud up to the axles in July, and in 2013, in August.
    I thought I’d pass along some ideas concerning planting with older farm equipment. Small and old grain drills often sell at auction for about what one would pay for a push type garden planter. Of course a tractor is required, but by covering some of the “feeds” in the drill, it can be made to plant quite a number of row crops, in various spacings in multiples of 7 or 8 inches. One would need to test and adjust the seeding rate and this procedure is outlined in every drill’s owner’s manual. To hold a small quantity of seed in position over the feed all that is required is a small open ended box or tube duct taped into position. Our garden drill is a wooden wheeled Van Brunt built in the twenties, with my grandfather’s penciled notations on settings, inside the wooden boxes.
    We plant sweet corn with the same corn planter we use in the field, however, we leave every other seed bin empty, to provide room to work between the rows.
    While it may seem a bit heavy on the machinery, it’s all very low-tech, and it’s satisfying to keep the old equipment working.
    Been enjoying your writings here on your site very much, and can hardly wait to start planting.

  3. I am putting this video on SS&S.
    This is a bible grain being grown by ancient methods
    Hebrew for millet is Dochan

  4. Amanda says:

    Hi! I teach Environmental Horticulture at Danville Area Community College in Danville IL. I LOVE what your doing with the poly cultures! I’m interested to know how it worked out I plan to plant 4 acres of millet on my home farm and an acre of amaranth at out college sustainable farm.
    Hope your having a great planning season! Look forward to any response 🙂


    • John Sherck says:

      Hello Amanda. While I am still very interested in poly cultures, I must confess I have not been able to invest a lot of time in exploring the possibilities. Most of my time has been spent trialling new crops and maintaining the varieties I have. This has proven to be very challenging in itself. I have had the opportunity to further experiment with wheat in a poly culture setting but not the millets. My initial experiments with millet, legumes, corn and sorghum were somewhat successful. The next question would be appropriate spacing and timing of planting. Varietal considerations are also very important as I learned that certain corn and millet varieties do not work well with vigorous legumes like vining cowpeas. Clover has proven to be very useful although it does not provide a “food” crop. I would recommend setting up a number of trial plots with various mixtures. I am convinced that the best system will be the one that gives a lot of space between the grains. I believe I planted to close in my past trial of millets. The density made harvest difficult. I was wanting to shade out weeds early on. Now I would allow a low growing legume like clover to do that work.

  5. Russ Sherwood says:

    at what low temps will millet and up land rice and amaranth? i am in usda zone 4, the upper peninsula of michigan,, where could i purchase enough of these grains to start them growing in my climate? i have 4 acres of marginal land, hill and rocky forest soil, the video was an eye opener , just shows that if the govt. leaders can not make a profit off of something they turn to big ag. to find a solution,, much to the down fall of small farmers that grow the better food crops.

    • John Sherck says:

      I know that Duborskian rice has been successfully grown as far north as Traverse City. There are even earlier maturing upland rice varieties that may be more suitable for zone 4, but they will likely need to be transplanted. I am not sure how millet and amaranth will produce if your summers are cool but my guess is the early maturing varieties would do fine. I believe this will require some experimentation on your part. I am zone 5 hovering close to a zone 6.

      The poor soils should not be an issue for millet or amaranth. Rice does require some fertility for a good yield.

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