A closeup of pearl millet. 

With a shift in farm subsidies, millet, consumed across Africa and India, could be the southeastern United States’ next cash crop, but this unsung nutritional hero is having to go against the grain. 

The crop is comparable to quinoa, a South American grain which is seeing more U.S. demand but faces controversy over environmental practices and social issues where it’s grown. Efforts to cultivate the plant domestically have been limited due to its temperamental nature. 

Millet is less fussy, having been grown around the Southeast for decades and around the world for thousands of year. It provides similar benefits to quinoa, including fiber, essential amino acids and proteins. 

Foxtail millet, commonly grown in Nebraska and Colorado, is a strain widely sold as birdseed. The iron-rich pearl millet, grown on small farms in Georgia since the 1980s, is high in calcium and protein and is gluten-free, a common shopping point for many consumers looking to replace wheat in their diets.

So why has millet been limited mostly to animal feed in the U.S.? 

Wayne Hanna, a retired plant breeder and forage and turf geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says that it mainly has to do with which crops the U.S. government agrees to subsidize. 

The U.S. farm bill, being debated now in the Congress, regulates farm production and prices, offering crop insurance and subsidies to farmers growing commodity crops.  

“It’s like a business deal. [Farmers] want a reliable market point. They don’t want to receive an order one year for 20 tons of millet and then the next year, only two,” Mr. Hanna said. 

This presents a conundrum for farmers looking to try new crops: It’s riskier to grow it without the subsidy, but Uncle Sam doesn’t open his pocketbook until a crop reaches a certain scale.

“Pearl millet is not a major crop like soybeans, corn, peanuts and wheat in the United States. It’s considered a new crop and must be established on its own,” Mr. Hanna said. 

Farmers overseas don’t have these constraints. Pearl millet is grown for human consumption in India and Africa, covering 50 million acres between them. The crop does well in arid regions with limited water because humidity can cause mold to grow on the plant.  

“Many locals in African countries will tell you, if there is a limited supply of pearl millet, they will save it for the pregnant and nursing because of the calcium, protein and balance of amino acids,” Mr. Hanna told Global Atlanta

Indian farmers have proven to be the most successful with pearl millet cultivation over the last 40 years. They use the pearl millet hybrid variety, attaining higher yields that enable millions of people to be fed. 

But even with all this demand, don’t expect an export boom from the U.S. Even though it could be grown on an industrial scale, farmers won’t have the appetite to do so without government backing. 

“As long as millet is not a part of the farm bill, there is not going to be enough acreage to produce the volume that you need to export,” Mr. Hanna said. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...