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Teff taking root in Midwest USA

By MARCIA VANDERLIP | Columbia Tribune

CULUMBIA, MISSOURI – You can learn a lot about a person’s culture by exploring her pantry. I didn’t know anything about teff, for example, until my Eritrean {www:friend} Akbaret Hailu Hagos invited me into her pantry last week to see the 10-pound bag of teff flour. She goes through the teff pretty quickly because it is used in the family’s daily bread, injera. She buys the big bags online, to save a little. “It’s hard to find here,” she said, adding that it is more expensive than all-purpose flour.

Last week, after spending some time sampling Akbaret’s delicious native food — including the spongy, pancake-like injera made with teff — I wondered why teff is so, well, foreign to this country. Farmers here grow lots of corn, wheat and sorghum, but not so much teff. This is puzzling because the tiny grain is high in protein, nutrient-rich and it is gluten-free. It’s also drought-resistant and, by some accounts, can be grown just about anywhere.

In East Africa, teff is the staple grain, ground into flour to make the injera, which is shared at daily meals in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

I couldn’t find a Missouri farmer who grew teff for food. The closest I came to Missouri was Kansas. Edgar Hicks, a grain-marketing consultant in Omaha, Nebraska, told me about a handful of farmers in Nicodemus, Kansas, who are growing teff, thanks to a USDA Conservation Innovation grant received a year ago, administered by Solomon Valley Resource Conservation and Development Area in Kansas. This year, the farmers used a grass drill to plant 40 acres of the tiny seed in May, June and July. The May crop grew well in warm, dry weather. The later crops failed to mature because of unusually wet weather late in the season. “It’s a learning process,” said Teresa Webb, program assistant at Solomon Valley. “People need to know that food does not magically appear in the grocery store. It’s a process that is sometimes not easy.” Still, teff is growing in Kansas, and it looks promising as an “alternative” rotation crop, a way to supplement farmers’ income. “We wanted to sell it to ethnic markets” and health markets, Webb explained, “for people with celiac” disease who are allergic to gluten, “and people from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea who want their native grain.”

When Hicks first imagined the market for teff in Kansas, he envisioned “an ecomomic development tool” for these particular Kansas farmers, descendents of African slaves. “Originally, my intention was to grow teff like they do in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it is hand-grown and labor intensive. We wanted to create something with a value-added feel,” he said. Hicks wanted to see “the farmer, the grower and the buyer all coming together. People could come to this community, get to know the culture, learn how people are sharing, how they eat. I think we need to get back to the way people used to eat — sharing a meal in a communal way.”

He thinks the Ethopians and Eritreans have something to teach us about sharing crops and meals. He also thinks there is demand for teff as a food crop, but communities and farmers will need to be educated about how to use it and grow it. By the way, the grain is currently grown for flour in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Idaho. Farmers in other states, like Ohio and Tennessee, are planting the sturdy teff grass as forage food for horses and cattle.

Meanwhile, out in Western Kansas, Solomon Valley has been getting lots of calls from California, Texas, Maine and even Europe. People want to know where to get teff seed to process into flour, Webb said.

Back in Columbia, I picked up a 24-ounce bag in the gluten-free section at Clover’s Natural Market for just less than $7. (I later found the small bags in the health food aisles at Hy-Vee and Gerbes. Also, if you don’t mind buying on, you can purchase from Barry Farms, a 1-pound bag for $3 or a 5-pound bag for $14.20.)

I mixed up my package of flour with some yeast and water and let it sit, covered, for a day. The next day, my husband poured the all-teff flour batter into a crepe pan and made mini injera, which looked more like a cross between a tortilla and a crepe, only it was deep brown in color, smelled of cocoa and had a robust, nutty flavor. Teff pancakes might not appeal to everyone. I liken it to drinking stout or a hearty microbrew as opposed to a thinner lager.

We lined a wide plate with our injera tortillas and ladled on some Spanish pot roast to share with a friend who is allergic to wheat. Our American adaptation was pretty good, though it did not come close to the soft, delicate injera made by Akbaret. We ate it with our hands, in solidarity and communion with Eritreans. Try it some time. The kids will love it. This kid did.

(Reach Marcia Vanderlip at (573) 815-1704 or [email protected])

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