What You Need to Know About Growing Millet

Millet is a fast-growing late-season crop, is easily adaptable in the kitchen and outstrips many more common grains as a nutritional powerhouse.

| May 2015

In Small-Scale Grain Raising (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009), author Gene Logsdon proves that anyone who has access to a large garden or small farm can and should think outside the agribusiness box and learn to grow healthy whole grains or beans alongside their fruits and vegetables. This excerpt, from Chapter 8, “Buckwheat and Millet,” provides information about the four kinds of millet and how they can be grown on a small-scale.

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Growing Millet in the United States

Millet is grown in the United States mostly for pasture and hay. Only proso millet is grown seriously for grain. It is used for animal feed, flour for humans, and birdseed mixtures. It is nutritionally superior to many of our common grains, containing more essential amino acids than wheat, oats, rice, barley, and rye. It lacks only lysine, the amino acid buckwheat is high in, making buckwheat and millet a good combination in your diet. Also, while most grains form acids in your stomach, millet, with its high alkaline mineral content, counteracts acids and is more easily digested. Millet, not rice, is the basic carbohydrate food in China, especially northern China. The Hunzas, whose reputation for health and longevity is well known, eat millet regularly.

The word millet is used to refer to plants in four different families, and therefore leads to a tremendous amount of confusion, including mine. Sellers of field seed in the United States talk about Japanese, German, Hungarian, African, common, proso, pearl, browntop, foxtail, and variations thereof. And these terms do not necessarily refer to the same plant in different parts of the country, either. So, armed with my ever-trusty Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, Horticulture, and Landscape Design, 4th ed., (Riverside Press, 1961) and supported by innumerable phone calls to seedsmen throughout the United States, I shall attempt to identify all the millets and colloquial names thereof. But, mind you, I won’t claim infallibility for my categorization. One man’s colloquialism is another man’s slang.

There are three different families of millets and a fourth kind so-called, which is not really millet at all. Let’s dispatch with this fourth one first. If you are in Texas or surrounding states, you can buy and grow what is called “African millet.” This plant is really a sorghum, a tall form of kafir corn with a proper name of Sorghum unlgare var. caffrorum. It is grown for pasture and/or hay, though not extensively. African millet might also be referred to as mock- orange cane, orange sorghum, or even sumac, in Texas.

Proso Millet

Proso millet, Panicum miliaceum, is the only millet grown for food in the United States. It is sometimes called broomcorn millet because the open heads of the plant resemble small broomcorn heads. That differentiates it from the foxtail- and cattail-shaped heads of other millets. So far as I know, no millet is sold under the name “broomcorn millet” anymore, but interest in proso is increasing as a food grain for the driest parts of the country. This family of millets is the one used from earliest times for grain and flour, especially in India, China, Japan, Manchuria, and Russia. Proso is usually milled for livestock as well as humans because the seed coating is so hard. Chickens can handle it whole. The seeds are about the size of peppercorns, and either red, yellow, or white in color. Newer varieties are white.

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