A humble seed holds big promise. Ethiopian grain can weather harsh climes

WHEN fellow farmers look to August skies for rain to break the drought that has hit the United States farm belt, Wayne Carlson will be hoping for clear, dry weather. More than any other American farmer, Mr. Carlson needs sunny skies to harvest his crop - a tiny grasslike grain, called teff. The slightest moisture, he says, causes the seed to germinate in less than 24 hours and can destroy a whole crop.

Grown almost exclusively in the east African nation of Ethiopia, teff is ground into a flour that Ethiopians use to make injera, a bread that is often considered their national staple. A round, flat, spongy, and slightly sour bread, injera is used to scoop up hot, spicy stews that constitute many of their meals.

In Amharic, Ethiopia's national language, teff means ``lost,'' which is what often becomes of this minute grain when it is handled. The seed is so small that it takes about 150 seeds to weigh as much as one grain of wheat.

But Carlson, one of only a handful of commercial farmers outside Ethiopia who are growing, grinding, and selling teff, says this grain deserves more attention from the Western world than its size might draw. For centuries its resistance to drought and its highly nutritional elements have given it an important role in the ability of Ethiopian highlanders to maintain their independence in the harsh terrain that engulfs them.

Although research on teff has been limited, there is evidence that the seed has more food value than the grains Westerners consume most often: corn, wheat, barley, and soybeans.

Geoffrey Chapman, a researcher at Wye College in Ashford, England, is researching teff in conjunction with the Ethiopian government. He says only that it ``compares well with temperate cereals.''

But research done by Carlson and an Ethiopian at the University of Wisconsin, and work cited in a report by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, indicate that this grain has a higher mineral content than many other grains.

Also, the seed is so small that the germ and the bran (the outer husk where nutrients are concentrated) are both retained during the grinding, or refining, process. Teff also harbors its own yeast. This makes it especially suitable for flatbreads, quickbreads, and dessert breads.

Most important, in an age of great concern over permanent changes in worldwide weather patterns, is the plant's strong resistance to drought. It grows best under harsh conditions such as the dry, wind-swept fields that cover this valley on the Idaho-Oregon border.

Carlson already supplies teff flour to a number of Ethiopian restaurants, which have begun springing up in major cities to serve Americans as well as an estimated 50,000 Ethiopian refugees and immigrants. Most Ethiopian restaurants use a mixture of wheat and other flours, because teff is scarce and expensive to buy in the US, and it is difficult to prepare, says an Ethiopian who runs a catering service in Washington, D.C.

Certain that the strong-tasting injera will not become the US's next food fad, Carlson and his wife and partner, Elizabeth, have just introduced teff, which can be substituted for other flours, into the natural foods market.

The long-range goal is to see the small enterprise they have built - Maskal Forages - promote teff as an ``alternative'' among America's cereal crops.

The latter of these will be a tall order in a nation that is devoted to wheat, corn, and soybeans. Basically, ``we don't need another cereal grain,'' says an official of the US Department of Agriculture.

Each year, the US subsidizes farmers to harvest more of these crops than it can use or sell. And, although the USDA has already begun research spurred by weather stress - abnormal weather patterns such as the drought that has engulfed the Midwest - its aim is to find ``new or expanded uses for the current crops ... and substitutes [for products] we are importing,'' says P.A. Miller of USDA's Agriculture Research Services.

Carlson, a stocky blond with just the beginnings of the sun-baked farmer look, is not deterred by such arguments. As he picks his way gingerly among row after row of plants, he says the rejection of teff is largely a ``chauvinistic thing'' born of US-media images that depict Africa as a starving wasteland. ``People say to themselves with incredulity, `Who'd want to grow what Africans grow?'''

Later, traveling a canyon road, Carlson explains how he became interested in just that.

In the early 1970s he worked in Ethiopia as a biologist, where he became aware of the important nutritive and cultural roll teff played in the lives of Ethiopians. ``I knew,'' he says, ``that there were 35 million people [Ethiopians] who swear by it.''

There is, says Carlson, ``a symbiotic relationship that this eccentric, tough population has had for centuries with teff.''

Carlson says this is partly because the seed fits their life style - constant migration, either by choice or force. ``A farmer,'' Carlson says, ``could hide a very small stash of seed - and in the case of an invasion, pick up and move with enough to begin a farm elsewhere.''

In Ethiopia today, Carlson sees disastrous forces working against the continuance of this relationship and toward the destruction of cultural diversity.

His concerns have been voiced by several Western development agencies in reports on Ethiopia's recurring famines. The agriculture and counterinsurgency policies of the Soviet-backed Ethiopian government increasingly undermine the nation's ability to produce its own food, says Jason Clay of Cultural Survival, a Massachusetts-based agency that reports on cultures throughout the world.

Each year, Ethiopia's ``structural food deficit'' grows. And each year the international community gives Ethiopia more food from its subsidized overproduction. That food - mostly wheat and corn - could eventually mean the end of traditional Ethiopian foods.

Recognition of this destructive process is part of what drives this Idaho farmer. In the early 1980s Carlson found himself working for Geertson Seed Farms, an operation that grows crops like alfalfa and onions only for their seeds. Because Geertson Farms uses equipment designed for threshing small seeds, it was a perfect setup for launching a teff operation.

In less than five years, Maskal Forages has gone from testing a few of the multiple varieties of teff grown in their backyard to harvesting 200 acres of four strains and grinding and packaging thousands of pounds of seed each year. Last year, they donated 35,000 pounds of seed for planting to a relief agency working in Ethiopia.

After a long day of checking his fields Carlson heads home, which serves as headquarters for Maskal Forages marketing and packaging division and as the testing lab for new recipes. A sweet, yeasty aroma comes in wafts from the kitchen, and here and there, telltale dustings of flour settle softly on furniture and family alike.

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