Saturday, November 19, 2005

Black Farmers Look to Ethiopian Crop for Marketplace Niche

Gary Alexander examines a handful of  teff after harvesting it with a scythe in a test plot near Nicodemus, Kan.
Gary Alexander examines a handful of teff after harvesting it with a scythe in a test plot near Nicodemus, Kan. Charlie Riedel, AP

The Kansas City Star -- Black farmers in Kansas are experimenting with growing the Ethiopian crop known as teff - a cereal grain popular as an alternative to wheat for gluten-sensitive consumers - as a historical and cultural niche in today's marketplace.

Backed by a grant from the Agriculture Department, researchers and black farmers planted several test plots of teff in Kansas this year to see whether it would be a practical alternative crop in the Kansas climate.

It grew well.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, thousands of former black slaves - known locally as "Exodusters" - flocked to the fertile Kansas prairie in search of a better life. Of the half-dozen of so black settlements here, only Nicodemus survived. The northwest Kansas town, located about 300 miles west of Kansas City, is now a protected National Historic Park site.

It's there that Gary and Gil Alexander planted their first teff plots in the spring, experimenting with different varieties. The Alexanders - distant cousins and descendants of the former slaves who first settled Nicodemus - were both intrigued by the connection teff had with Ethiopia and Africa.

Just three black farmers still toil the land around Nicodemus, and the Kansas Black Farmers Association is comprised of only about a dozen black farmers statewide who are still left on their family farms.

"We are trying to find a way not to deal on the open commodity markets market," Gil Alexander said. "The farmers are not getting a fair shake. We raise a lot of wheat, a lot of sorghum. I've raised my best sorghum crop ever this year, and it's not worth anything."

Looking for an alternative crop they could grow that would fill a market niche, the cousins were receptive when Edgar Hicks, a grain marketing consultant in Omaha, Neb., approached them with the idea of growing teff.

"Teff is a crop grown primarily in Ethiopia, and using the connection between Ethiopia and Nicodemus being a black settlement, we thought teff would be something to try," Gil Alexander said.

A native Louisianan with no family ties to Nicodemus, Hicks has nonetheless long been drawn to this all-black settlement. His grain-industry expertise earned a $83,965 grant three years ago to develop a historical, community-based wheat milling cooperative, a project that is still in the works. He got a $197,000 grant last year to fund teff research in Kansas.

"When I approached it, I kind of started it off as a black project," Hicks said. "It has gotten to be far beyond that right now."

Teff's low gluten content, nutritional qualities, drought resistance and forage benefits have all added to the cultural ties that first drew Hicks to the crop. Teff is also used by Ethiopians to make a flat bread that is a staple in their diet.

"Times are so tough for farmers now. ... Tough times have made people more open to look at this as not so much a crackpot-type thing," Hicks said.

Sarah Evert, a graduate student at Kansas State University, is writing her master's degree thesis on the research she is doing on growing teff in Kansas. She worked with the black farmers, experimenting on growing teff at different planting rates and using different planting techniques to see what worked best.

"We have only one summer research," she said. "It definitely grew. It grew well in western Kansas. Once we got the stand established, it was pretty drought tolerant and hardy."

Back in Nicodemus, Gary Alexander was harvesting this week the last of his 2 acres of teff. The test plot was small enough to be cut with hedge trimmers or a small hand scythe.

It reminded him of the old days, when farmers would still cut wheat by hand and big shocks of wheat would stand in the fields. He knows of at least one commercial grower in Oklahoma who grows hundreds of acres of teff, enough to run his combine to harvest it.

Someday, big teff fields could dot the countryside around Nicodemus. But not even black farmers who are toying with growing it in hopes of supplementing their income expect it will ever become a primary crop.

"This is wheat country," Gil Alexander said. "The plains of Kansas have always been wheat country, and I don't see that changing."

1 comment:

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