STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People who spend time in the kitchen and think a lot about their ingredients have probably heard of quinoa, the ancient mother grain of the Incas which is now promoted as a super food, alternative to rice. There's another grain sitting on store shelves with potential: millet. Like quinoa, millet is drought-tolerant, gluten-free and nutrient-dense - but has not quite taken off.
As Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports, millet has a way to go before it can become the next big thing.
LUKE KENYON, BYLINE: On a warm evening in Denver, Amie Arias preps her food truck, the Vegan Van, for the dinner crowd.
AMIE ARIAS: We've got pulled jackfruit pork. We've got fake chicken and waffles.
KENYON: And then for dessert, Arias pulls out a metal baking sheet and peels away a layer of wax paper.
ARIAS: They are a chocolate hazelnut butter, Rice Krispie millet treat. It's a mouthful.
KENYON: She tops the treat with a scoop of vegan ice cream. Few other cooks have latched onto the grain as they have with other ancient grains, like quinoa. Millet seeds are tiny, round in shape and can be white, yellow or red.
ARIAS: I have to explain it, and sometimes people are little apprehensive that it's not going to taste so good in a Rice Krispie treat.
KENYON: On the surface, millet has so many things going for it: It's gluten-free, nutritious, versatile and grown in America. Colorado produces about half of the nation's millet, with the rest coming from South Dakota and Nebraska. But the grain also has some big hurdles to face. Most shoppers - if they've heard of it at all - equate millet with bags of birdseed.
JEAN HEDIGER: It is a perception that's still out there.
KENYON: Jean Hediger farms millet in Northern Colorado.
HEDIGER: But it's actually a different millet than what we're raising for human consumption. And so we're working very hard to introduce millet for food.
KENYON: Hediger says millet is gaining momentum. Demand for organic millet has been on the rise, riding the coattails of the growth in gluten-free foods. But last year...
HEDIGER: Last year was a disaster.
KENYON: The usually drought-tolerant millet withered under exceptionally hot and dry conditions. Some farmers lost up to 80 percent of their crop.
HEDIGER: You know, all of a sudden, our sales are doubling, tripling. It's really terrific. And then our buyers call and we say we had a drought. We can't get access to the crop, and there's just a limited amount.
KENYON: And that limited amount drove up prices, making it even harder to compete on grocery store shelves.
TIM LARSEN: Introducing new products is very tough.
KENYON: Tim Larsen is in marketing for Colorado's Department of Agriculture. He took on millet as a pet project a few years ago, after realizing the grain's potential. Millet is already eaten widely across Asia and Africa, only in small pockets in North America.
LARSEN: The whole ancient-grains phenomenon is new within the last year or two. So that's a sector that has appeal. Low-carbon-footprint people, locavore people I certainly think could see some attributes of it.
KENYON: Unlike almost every other crop grown in the country, there's no trade association or marketing group for millet, just a loose collection of farmers with support from state ag officials. Millet lacks a brand and cohesive message. Larsen says the grain needs the help of adventurous chefs and tastemakers.
Back at the Vegan Van in Denver, Amie Arias jots down the final few menu items on a whiteboard, with the puffed millet krispie leading the list.
ARIAS: Sweets are always, I think, the best kind of introduction to any kind of food, because most people enjoy them and they're not afraid to try them.
KENYON: And maybe next time, she says, they'll try eating millet without it covered in vegan chocolate and topped with a scoop of vegan ice cream.
For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.
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INSKEEP: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, which is a public radio reporting project focusing on agriculture and food production. This is NPR News.
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