Nunn, Colorado

President Jean Hediger makes sure that organic millet is available to the masses, thanks to her network of like-minded farmers — plus, the growing numbers of retailers carrying it.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about two-thirds of U.S. millet production is rooted in the Centennial State. But it isn’t commonplace on menus or dinner tables. At least not yet.

Hediger offers a variety of reasons people ought to eat more millet. It’s “the least-allergenic and most-nutritious of all grains we grow in the United States.” Furthermore, “it’s a gluten-free grain” that’s “grown by American farmers.” But when it comes right down to it, Hediger says, “It tastes great.”

The Hediger family grows a type of millet called proso on their 4,000-acre organic farm in Weld County, Colorado, in addition to wheat and oats. Golden Prairie markets this millet (and other organic millet largely from farms in eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, and South Dakota) in bulk to individuals, chefs, and a variety of manufacturers.

On the Hedigers’ dinner table, millet helps make the meal. Golden Prairie’s website lists recipes — developed by graduate students within Colorado State University’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department — for using millet in a stir-fry, salad, desserts, granola, soup, or flour. “They really are delicious!” touts Hediger.

Furthermore, millet seeds are incorporated within some snacks and power bars from Kind. (Hediger can’t say whether millet specifically from Golden Prairie is used by the company.) Millet seeds are often a component within multi-grain breads. They’re also being used to brew beer and distill whiskey (Hediger cites one example, made from her millet, as being particularly “awesome”). And millet provides a medium on which to grow mushrooms.

Although Hediger and her husband, Randy, had been unfamiliar with growing millet on their land in Montana, they began planting it after Randy’s father helped them buy a farm in Colorado. Early on, it was Jean — concerned with the “health of our family, our employees, our environment, our community” — who spearheaded the family’s decision to go organic, avoiding the use of toxic pesticides.

As part of the deal, she took on the task of marketing the farm’s millet. Hediger’s graduate degree in education from the University of Northern Colorado has served her well. “Marketing is about teaching,” says Hediger. “Helping consumers or companies understand its uses, educating [them] about millet.”

Pretty soon it became apparent there was a millet deficit: “Our family farm [was] not able to meet the demands of the organic millet industry.” Today, Hediger works with about a dozen additional farms, coordinating the processing — the cleaning and the dehulling of the millet — so it can eventually be consumed by humans. (On the other hand, unhulled millet seeds have commonly been used as bird food.)

Early on, powerhouse natural foods distributor UNFI sought her out, and Golden Prairie’s organic millet is now sold coast to coast in stores like Whole Foods and Natural Grocers. Millet is riding a wave of popularity for gluten-free foods. During a good year, the combined output for Golden Prairie’s network of farms will be in the millions of pounds, making the company the largest supplier of organic millet in the U.S.

But that’s during a good year. Last year, excessive heat and lack of rain led to crop failure for the Hedigers’ own millet for the first time, despite it being a “relatively drought-resistant crop.” Thankfully, Hediger reports, “This year, we all had pretty good yield,” so the price of millet ought to go back down for consumers.

Changing climate — resulting in lowered water tables — may lead to a changing diet for Americans. And, as a result, millet might become more widely consumed. “Low-impact, low-water-demand foods are going to become commonplace in the future,” says Hediger, “because there isn’t going to be water to grow all these foods that we’ve historically grown.”

Photos courtesy Golden Prairie Millet

She adds, “I think millet will be a leader in that [changing diet], because of its nutritional value to our families.”

Challenges: In the midst of severe climatic shifts, it will continue to be cooperative weather: “Even though this is a dryland country and a dryland crop, we do need moisture. which we cannot control. We don’t have access to irrigation. We need it to rain. We need the weather to be cooperative to help us grow our crops.”

Opportunities: “Americans’ interest in gluten-free, organic grains,” says Hediger, who will continue to be there to meet those needs: “I like trying to help Americans consume healthy, nutritious, organic foods.”

Needs: “Good weather,” reaffirms Hediger. “Lots of rain.”