Wayne Carlson became enamored with the tiny teff grain while living in Ethiopia and working on a project to prevent waterborne diseases in the 1970s. He said that everyone he met in the country ate injera--a spongy, crepe-like bread made from teff flour--with almost every meal.
"That's about the only way they eat it over there, this delicious and nutritious flatbread," he said.
Carlson was the first person to introduce the idea of growing teff in the United States, around 1981, and now his Nampa-based Teff Company works with about 30 diversified farmers in Idaho who sell their grain to the domestic market for human consumption and livestock forage.
"I've spent a lot of time evangelizing it in the last 30 years. Teff is a fairly unknown crop in this part of the world, but it's starting to catch on," said Carlson, whose company sells whole-grain and flour products.
In recent years, farmers around the Inland Northwest have become hip to growing ancient grains like teff. Eastern Washington has fields of swaying emmer farro and spelt. Sorghum has replaced many alfalfa crops in eastern Oregon, and Idaho is one of the leading producers of teff outside of Ethiopia, where grain has been a staple in the eastern part of the African continent since prehistoric times.
Teff, also known as lovegrass, was first planted in Idaho in 1986, yet it took a few years for farmers to see the potential of growing the grain along the western swath of the Snake River Plain.
"The most essential reason for growing teff is the existence of a market for the grain," Carlson said. "Without that, the production of teff becomes a botanical experiment."
Even though several land grant universities had conducted agricultural research on teff, during the 1980s, not many farmers had come to incorporate the grain into their crop rotations. Carlson saw a sliver of light and decided to open the door, creating a new agricultural niche by working directly with farmers to ensure the crop's success.
"A lot of farmers thought I was joking, because Ethiopia wasn't known for having much food. People were starving to death," he said.
While Idaho is drastically different than the equatorial climate of Ethiopia, this part of the state does offer the bright light and long, hot days it takes to cultivate the grass-like crop, which is primarily grown in Owyhee, Canyon and Washington counties.
Carlson said the Snake River Plain looks similar to the areas in Ethiopia where teff is grown, and both places have nutrient-rich volcanic soil. One of the biggest challenges he faced, though, was choosing suitable varieties to grow in Idaho's high desert.
"There are more than 1,600 types of teff. I wanted to find a distinctively different line that would fit into the shorter growing season here," Carlson said.
Idaho farmers grow about 10 to 15 different kinds of the brown-and-white teff varieties, ranging in flavor from nutty to slightly sweet. Once the grain gets milled into flour and cooked, it takes on a subtle, sourdough-like taste.
Teff is a delicate crop that can be easily wiped out by extreme moisture, especially near harvest time. It's typically planted in early June and it comes up within 36 hours. The verdant grass, which produces vibrant crimson and purple flowers, is cut about two times during the early summer months (think alfalfa), when it gets used as grass hay to feed livestock.
In late summer after the grass comes up again, the farmers let it go to seed, and that's when it gets harvested for human consumption--long before the heavy morning frosts hit the valley. The harvestable parts of the plant are the seeds themselves, considered by many to be the smallest grain in the world. The conditioned seeds typically get milled into flour because there's no way to separate the minuscule grain into different parts.
"I think it's a great product, a great crop for Idaho. It's real healthy for everyone," said Vince Holtz, a diversified farmer who grows teff for seed and flour in Sunnyslope.
Because it's gluten-free, teff has been gaining popularity in the United States as people with wheat-based allergies and aversions seek out other grains. Teff is also high in fiber and calcium, making it a good choice for anyone hoping to eat healthier.
Carlson sells a lot of his products to ethnic markets in American cities that boast large East African populations. But home cooks and professional chefs with an interest in food archeology are also finding creative uses for the grain.
"It can be used in all kinds of dishes. It adds a delicious, slightly sour taste to your recipes," Carlson said. "Waffles and pie crusts made from the flour taste great."
Chef Jered Couch, executive chef at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Nampa and former owner of SixOneSix in Eagle, uses teff on his seasonal menus and occasionally teaches classes about cooking with ancient grains. Couch also touts teff's culinary versatility.
"I like to reduce the grains with veggie stock until it becomes creamy like polenta," he said. "Teff also works well for making savory little cakes to go with grilled fish and as crepe batter."
He added: "The story of teff is great. You're actually eating a food that people ate way back when, prepared almost the same way."