My foxtail millet seedlings brought out of the greenhouse in their pots to harden off before planting out in the garden.

It was a privilege for me in 2023 to participate in the Growing Millet Together group, a collaborative creation of Saori Ogura, University of British Columbia. Ogura’s project networks both experienced and beginning millet growers from Japan, Kenya, India, Zimbabwe, and Canada. I fall into the beginner category of millet growers; I’m just experimenting. So it was a great opportunity to be linked through Ogura’s group to experienced millet farmers who I could learn from and to read their observations as their crops grew and matured through to harvest and into their kitchens.

Millets are small grains; small in the sense of grain size and/or proportion of global grain production. They are diverse taxonomically, belonging to the genera Setaria, Echinochloa, Panicum, Eleusine, Pennisetum, Sorghum, Coix, Eragrostis, and others, but all the grass millets are part of the so-called PACMAD grasses, a large group of grass genera found mostly in tropical to warm-temperate climates. As far as I’m aware, all the grass millets use the C4 photosynthetic pathway, which for ecophysiological reasons gives them an advantage over the C3 grasses in hot, dry climates (most of the world’s plants use the C3 pathway). So the millets are grains of resilience where climate change is heating and drying agricultural growing conditions. Most of the millets are more tolerant of poor soils than most grain crops. Also, compared to many crops, millet cultivation can be done in a way that is less harmful to biodiversity and ecosystems, requiring less fertilizer and pesticides.

Millets are too often denigrated as “poverty food”. But they have high nutrient content and rich flavours, so they should be a grain of choice. Attitudes can and should change. I remember my grandfather refusing to eat whole grain bread because when he was growing up in Appalachia in the 1920s and 30s, only poor people, like his family, ate “brown bread”. Once he became an adult, he was ashamed of being from Hillbilly roots and so he left behind all the old foodways and would only eat white bread. Eventually, he developed colon cancer, which might not have happened if he hadn’t refused to eat the higher-fiber whole grain breads. Likewise with millets, there are good reasons to bury the old, outdated prejudice against them. With millets accepted into the kitchen, a whole world of sophisticated traditional foods opens up, foodways to adopt, learn from, and modify.

Today is the opening of Saori’s and Derek Tan’s exhibit at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum showcasing the progress through the year of the Growing Millet Together collaboration. 2023 was designated by the United Nations as The Year of Millet, so the project was timely. If you happen to be in Vancouver through the duration of the exhibit, I hope you’ll stop in and take a look. And I hope the millet grains have a place in your garden and/or kitchen.

Thank you Saori for helping to popularize these wonderful grains!

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