East African Grain ‘Teff’ Grows in Popularity in US

03 April 2022

An ancient grain native to the Horn of Africa, called teff, is growing in popularity in the United States. It is being grown in the American West and Midwest. Growers note its increasing appeal as a "super food" that is rich in iron.

One of those farmers is Tesfa Drar. He grew up helping his parents raise teff in what is now Eritrea.

When he came to the United States for college in 1981, he missed injera, the flatbread made out of teff that is popular in the Horn of Africa.

Grower Tesfa Drar stands near irrigation equipment in a field of teff in northeastern Nevada. His company, Selam Foods, sells the ancient grain native to the Horn of Africa, Oct. 2021. (Tresor M. Matondo / VOA)
Grower Tesfa Drar stands near irrigation equipment in a field of teff in northeastern Nevada. His company, Selam Foods, sells the ancient grain native to the Horn of Africa, Oct. 2021. (Tresor M. Matondo / VOA)

Tesfa said, "I decided to bring 20 pounds [of teff] from home and I planted it at the University of Minnesota, where I was studying." He added, "From there, I gave it to different colleges and universities for research."

Tesfa now grows the grain in northern Nevada. His company Selam Foods sells it online on a website that shares cooking suggestions for injera and information about the history of teff. The grass is one of the oldest domesticated plants in the world.

Tesfa farms more than 2,400 hectares of land in Nevada, Minnesota, and in six other states. His operation in northwestern Nevada is near Winnemucca, a town that has 24-hour casinos as well as a farming community that grows potatoes, alfalfa, wheat and corn.

In recent years, more farmers are reacting to the growing demand for foods that do not have gluten in them by planting teff. Land committed to teff production "has exploded" in recent years, reports the University of Nevada-Reno. It estimates the crop is grown in at least 25 U.S. states.

Down the road from Tesfa's place, at Desert Oasis Teff and Grain in Fallon, John Getto and his son Myles say they are growing "ancient grains for modern tastes." They sell a lot of teff to buyers in California and smaller amounts locally or online.

"Nevada has the perfect climate for teff, which is the nice part," Myles Getto said. "It is hot. Very, very hot. Very little rainfall, but we do irrigate our teff. It's just a good climate to grow teff in."

University of Nevada-Reno researchers are working to develop shorter, more drought-tolerant kinds of teff. John Cushman, a professor who directs the biochemistry graduate program, said that such research is especially important for farmers in Nevada, America's driest state.

Cushman said, "As the western United States is getting drier and drier due to global climate change, we felt it important to make an investment in some alternate crops."

Alternate is a term that means offering a choice or different from what is usual.

Bob Dexter added teff to his usual crops on his farm along the Carson River.

"I wanted to grow something besides cattle food," said Dexter. He has grown wheat, barley and alfalfa. But he said: "I wanted to raise something that was good food for people to eat. And when I found out about the teff, it looked like a good fit for what we have here to work with in our climate."

Tesfa Drar said the high-fiber "super food" has global appeal, adding that teff can be used to make all kinds of foods that are popular in America.

"Teff can be used for making cookies, for making pancakes, porridge, and you can make it for pizza," Tesfa said. "... Now we are working with Pizza Hut to provide them gluten-free teff so they can make it for pizza."

I'm John Russell.

Tewelde Tasfagabir reported this story for VOANEWS. Trésor M. Matondo contributed to it. John Russel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

domesticated adj. : adapted over time (as by selective breeding) from a wild or natural state to life in close association with people

casino – n. a building used for gambling, a game of chance in which the goal is to win money

gluten – n. a protein especially in wheat that is important to making bread but that some people avoid eating

irrigate – v. to supply crops and plants with water

drought – n. a long period of time during which there is very little or no rain