Farmers find ways to reap the financial and nutritional benefits of millets

September 19, 2013

Finger millet, also called ragi millet, Bangalore, India.


Increasing the production and supply of small millets means rural households must have access to sustainable technologies and practices that make it easier to cultivate, process, sell, and consume these highly nutritious but underused grains. A multidisciplinary team of plant and social scientists from Canada, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka is working with local farmers in these countries to identify and put into practice proven solutions.

The challenge: changing perception of millets

Farmers in India have grown small millets for thousands of years, and for good reasons (Fig. 1). Yet, despite these advantages, small millet production (other than finger millets) decreased 76% between 1961 and 2009. During the same period, total rice production more than doubled and that of wheat increased threefold, largely as a result of policies supporting Green Revolution crops. New approaches are needed to present  millets as a viable source of income and a dietary staple.

Farmers identify best seeds and practices

Farmers play a key role in determining which seed varieties and farming practices work best in their particular agro-ecological situation. Research has shown that farmers are more likely to adopt new seeds and improved practices when they see the results in their own fields first hand.

In this project, 778 men and 533 women farmers evaluated local varieties of small millets, improved varieties released by universities and research stations, and improved pre-release varieties in “mother” field trials. But it wasn’t always the high-yielding varieties that got top marks. Overall, farmers identified 11 local millets that performed as well as, or better than, the improved varieties.

“Mother” trials are conducted on farms to evaluate improved crop varieties.

“Baby” trials involve larger numbers of farmers testing the highest rated crops from mother trials.

For example, the first choice of farmers at Tanamalvila, Monaragala district in Sri Lanka, was the locally grown Kiri Kurakkan, because of its ability to withstand dry conditions. This was followed by Oshada, a released variety, and AD 1 and AD 3, pre-release varieties (Fig. 2).

Another unexpected finding was that farmers did not always choose faster-maturing millets. At several small project sites in South India (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha) they preferred a variety that takes longer to mature than other varieties because it performed better under erratic rainfall conditions. For the farmers, resilience to climate variability trumped rapid growth. This information will be of value to plant-breeding programs that normally focus on faster-maturing varieties as a strategy for avoiding climatic risks.

The 36 varieties short-listed by farmers during various mother trials will be field-tested in “baby” trials by about 2,000 farmers during the next crop season (Table 1).

Higher yields, fewer weeds, bigger profits

Field tests involving 290 marginalized farmers showed that combining scientific and indigenous knowledge can produce higher yields, fewer weeds, and bigger profits. In these tests, farmers were asked to evaluate a variety of technologies related to plant population, sowing methods, soil nutrients, and pest control.

For example, farmers in Nepal who intercropped with cowpeas at lower altitudes showed an economic gain of 44%. In Semiliguda, India, farmers rapidly adopted a transplanting method (transplanting seedlings grown under controlled conditions into fields)  for finger millet after seeing fewer weeds in the first year of trials. Positive results were recorded at other sites in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka among farmers who adopted improved practices (Fig. 3).

Clean seed sells for three to four times as much as seed with some hull remaining and is less susceptible to insects and moulds.

Mechanical mill makes it easier to produce, sell, and consume millets

One of the main constraints to increasing the production — and thus consumption — of millets is the hard labour required to separate the hull from the seed. Manual hulling is not only time consuming and difficult work, but it produces low rates of hull removal and also results in a third to half of the seeds breaking.

A CIFSRF project, led by McGill University, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, India, developed a rubber-roller mill with a unique design feature. Centrifugal force is used to separate the chaff, resulting in a highly efficient way to dehull millet.

This machine was further tested and improved as part of the millet project. Engineers from Canada and India managed to increase the mill’s efficiency to 95% (from about 60%) by adopting a new design and changing speed, moisture content, and number of passes.

The latest prototype will be adapted for use at the community or village level, and further improvements will enable it to accommodate barnyard millet and kodo millet. The original design is also being improved at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

India’s central government program, Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millet Promotion, is looking at setting up small-millet processing units in the state of Karnataka.

Economic and educational opportunities

The local availability of clean grain is also creating opportunities for women to earn extra money selling millet-based products, while also increasing consumption of millets at the household level. The project team worked with local women in India and Sri Lanka to standardize more than 30 traditional recipes, baked goods, and instant food mixes using small millets instead of maize or wheat. Consumer tests, involving 830 people at three project sites, rated cookies containing 50% small millets and bread with 20% small millets highly acceptable, although shelf-life of these products was considered a constraint.

Promotional activities at the project sites increased awareness of the links between production and consumption of small millets and human and ecosystem health. For example, in 2013, the theme of an annual walkathon, organized by the DHAN Foundation, was “Agricultural biodiversity and food security,” with a focus on small millets. The event attracted more than 52,000 participants, including women and school students, from five Indian provinces; however, its message about small millets reached 100,000 more people before and during the event.

Including millet in school lunches

As a result of this project, millet-based recipes have become part of the regular diet of 160 poor children (3–6 years old) at 10 daycare centres in the Srikakulam district (Andhra Pradesh, South India). Instead of a daily diet of rice and wheat-based foods, the children now receive highly nutritious food made with finger millets and small millets 17 days each month, as part of the country’s Integrated Child Development Scheme. This first of its kind pilot project, which began in April 2013 in partnership with two local NGOs — Watershed Support Services and Activities Network and Appropriate Reconstruction Training and Information Centre — will monitor the children’s body mass index to assess the impact of a millet diet on their overall health. Evidence from the CIFSRF-supported pilot project will support efforts to incorporate small millets into other public food programs, expanding use beyond this pilot test.

To learn more

Read the full project abstract