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UNCE helps establish profitable teff crop in Nevada

Posted 8/5/2010

Teff farmers Dave Eckert, left, and John Getto, right, talk with Jay Davison, an alternative crops specialist at the UNR Cooperative Extension Office, in a field of the grain in Fallon.

Teff farmers Dave Eckert, left, and John Getto, right,
talk with Jay Davison, an alternative crops specialist
at the UNR Cooperative Extension Office, in a field
of the grain in Fallon. (RGJ photo)

By Claudene Wharton

Eight years ago, Jay Davison, an alternative crops specialist with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, invited 36 Nevada farmers to meet with a teff producer, who wanted Nevada farmers to grow 500 acres of teff.

Teff is the smallest grain, about 1/150th the size of wheat, the farmers learned. It’s mainly used in Ethiopian cooking, to make injera, a flatbread. It is also popular with those with celiac disease, an intolerance to the gluten found in wheat, barley or rye. Teff can be milled and sold as flour for baking, the producer said, or sold and eaten as grain, as hot cereal or rice.

The Nevada farmers were skeptical.

"We didn’t have a single taker," Davison said. "It’s funny, farmers are in one of the riskiest businesses there is, but when you try to talk with them about new crops, they’re risk averse."

So Davison asked a friend, Craig McKnight, to plant a couple of trial acres on his land. McKnight agreed. Davison got one producer to put in 7 acres the next year, and by the following year, there were about 100 acres planted.

Now, there about 1,200 acres and a dozen growers, over half of them in Fallon, including Dave Eckert and John Getto, owners of Desert Oasis Teff, who have expanded from just growing teff, to cleaning and selling it as grain, as well as having it milled and selling it as flour. Davison estimates that about half the teff sold as grain or flour in the United States is now grown in Nevada, with Nevada and Idaho duking it out for the top producer. The gross value of teff grain being produced in Nevada is close to $1 million.

Close up picture of Teff

That’s a lot of money, but there is another upside: They are saving water. Teff needs about two-thirds as much water as alfalfa, and the return per acre is substantially higher, Davison said.

The venture hasn’t been without its challenges. Equipment used to harvest, clean and grind grain is all manufactured for much larger grains, so, when the two bought their cleaning equipment with the help of a grant Davison helped obtain, everything had to be revamped.

"We spent three or four months figuring out what to do and adapting all the machinery," Davison said.

Davison said that’s the way it is when dealing with alternative crops.

"No. 1, there’s few people doing it, and No. 2, those who are doing it have a niche, so they’re very closed-mouth about how they’re doing it," he explained.

That’s where Davison and the University’s research comes in, planting trial plots of alternative grains each year — teff, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa — to see which crops and varieties are best suited for Nevada. Davison is even working with a professor from Ethiopia, who came over to visit and exchange trial information. Davison also obtained some seed from Ethiopia, which Eckert and Getto have planted.

Close up picture of Teff grain

While agriculture is a small part of the state’s overall economy, Davison points out that it’s still important in rural communities, such as Fallon, where Eckert has been farming with his father for 40 years.

And, while alfalfa has been the bread and butter of farmers like Eckert and Getto, there is an increasing need to find crops that use less water. In addition, rotation crops are needed to plant in alfalfa and corn fields every few years as the soil gets depleted and weeds move in.

Eckert and Getto are now planting teff as a staple crop, year after year. But after three or four years, they need a rotation crop for teff because weeds start taking control from lack of crop diversity. Compounding their problem: There currently are no pesticides approved for use on teff. Davison has tested some and hopes to get EPA approval next year.

Because there is a much larger market for teff flour than teff grain, Eckert and Getto found a mill in Redding, Calif. to grind their grain into flour. The two want to purchase their own mill and have shipped teff samples all over the U.S. and Europe looking for the right machinery.

Teff being processed in mill.

Davison and the farmers expect demand for teff to increase as those with celiac, or gluten-intolerance, search for alternatives to wheat and other grains. Right now, Davison says, most of the company’s business comes from Ethiopian restaurants across the country.

"The health-food, gluten-free market — that’s going to be the market," Getto said. "That’s why we want our own equipment that we know hasn’t touched anything but gluten-free grains. That’s the only way to really guarantee our customers that our products are gluten-free."

The partners may use amaranth as a rotation crop with teff because it’s a broadleaf plant, rather than a grass like teff. Davison’s trials show that the amaranth yields per acre are not as great as teff yields, but because it is mostly used as a grain, it doesn’t require milling into flour, keeping production costs lower.

Eckert said the whole operation is an experiment.

"We’ve still got a lot of learning to do here. We think we got it all figured out every year, but then we find out we don’t," he chuckled.

"It’s kind of like the Wild West," Davison agreed. "It’s a challenge. There’s a lot to figure out and still stay commercially viable. Hopefully, that’s where the University can help."

To find out more about teff, or to purchase teff grain or flour, contact Eckert or Getto at 775-427-2610 or 775-427-0323. They are currently working on a website for Desert Oasis Teff.

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