A major revamp for minor millets
There are many parts of the world where the fashion in food, and the crops grown, have changed. In the southernmost tip of India, small millets, such as finger millet (Eleusine coracana), foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and little millet (Panicum sumatrense) were once the favoured food. Unresponsive to fertilizer, however, the small millets were largely ignored during the Green Revolution, and hampered by poor yields and laborious processing the tiny grains came to be replaced by grains such as rice, which yield better and are a lot easier to mill. Yet some communities living in the Kolli hills of Tamil Nadu, have continued to plant a small amount of millet each year, despite declining demand, and over the last three years, these farmers have had cause to reassess the value of this neglected crop.
A leading cause of that reappraisal has been a series of dry years. The successive failure of rains over several years has resulted in very poor harvests. Deep-rooted small millets, however, are extremely drought tolerant, making them valued as a vital emergency food crop. But the restored interest in millets has not been based only on their value to food security. As part of a global project to promote neglected and underutilised crops, field workers from the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation have sought to convince farmers that the neglected small millets also deserve recognition for their nutritional qualities. Small millets are high in folic acid, minerals, iron and fibre, and have higher vitamin levels than rice. If problems with yield and processing could be solved, this high nutritional value could make them doubly valuable, as a drought-tolerant food for farming families and a potential source of income.
Making the most of millet
In addressing the problem of poor yield, demonstration plots and trials of promising lines involved farmers in selecting varieties valued for their high yield and taste. In this the farmers had international support, with expertise and germplasm provided by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). The farmers also experimented with new cultivation methods, planting the seed in lines rather than broadcasting. Weeding proved much easier and through improved crop management, production costs were estimated to reduce by 40 per cent, while yields were substantially increased. Further trials, applying organic nutrients and controlling pests and diseases are continuing. For other farmers interested in growing millet, the selected high yielding varieties have been multiplied, and seed provided to a number of seed banks, run by women's groups. Ponammal, a member of a group in the village of Padasolai, explains that those who borrow seed are required to repay the bank, giving back twice the quantity borrowed so that others like her may benefit from the scheme.
The introduction of mechanised processing equipment has also been crucial. In Kuchakirayapatti village, a group of twelve farmers received an interest free loan from the Foundation in order to set up a millet mill. Their diesel-powered de-stoning, de-husking and milling machines now serve the needs of millet and rice farmers over a wide-area, and after three years, bring in enough revenue to keep two of the group members employed with a monthly salary, as well as keep up loan repayments. According to Dr Gopinath of the Foundation, enabling farmers to process their millet, and add value to it, is essential given the low price for unprocessed grain. To provide added value, food technologists have helped to develop new millet products, such as biscuits and snacks. Of particular potential value is the development of high-nutritional products, including finger millet malt and a mixed grain product with high fibre and a low glycaemic load, which has a strong potential market as a health food, particularly for diabetics.
Targeting the urban market
To tempt urban consumers with small millet products has involved a major marketing exercise to challenge millets' reputation as a poor man's food. The marketing campaign has emphasised the nutritional quality and versatility of millets. In the town of Namakkal, for example, a millet mela was recently held providing an opportunity for people to taste over 40 different millet dishes. Millet products, now on sale in shops and supermarkets, are professionally packaged and come with recipe ideas in English and Tamil. Dr Gopinath reports that sales are encouraging. When farmers first started selling millet in Namakkal, about 30 packets a month were sold. That number has now grown to 3000. And this success has led to more farmers planting one or more of the small millet varieties. In the three years of the project, Dr Gopinath, estimates the area planted to millet has increased by 15 per cent and farmers are now earning 20 times (from 500 to 10,000 rupees per tonne) as much for their grain.