Millet advocates hold event at UC Gill Tract

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On Sunday afternoon, a team of researchers advocating the increased presence of the millet grain in California farms, markets and homes hosted an event at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany, California.

Organized by UC Berkeley’s Millet Project, more than 100 members of the UC Berkeley community attended the event. There, they learned about the drought-resistant millet grain, met members of the project and its California-based farming partners, and tasted the grain in a variety of preparations, such as in breads, chips, sausage patties and even beer.

Led by Amrita Hazra, a postdoctoral researcher in the campus’s plant and microbial biology department, the Millet Project aims to diversify Californian agricultural practices and diets, an observed lack of which motivated the members of the project to successfully seek a grant from the Berkeley Food Institute. Money from the grant facilitated the planting of a few strains of millet along a small patch of the Gill Tract farm.

“What (the project has) done with the millet is fascinating,” said Gill Tract farm manager Jon Hoffman. He noted that some of the millet planted by the group had not been watered for more than two months and still grew to the same height as extensively watered corn crops.

Barriers to the grain’s widespread adoption in California still remain, however, including the availability of subsidies for the growth of alternate grains, such as corn, wheat and rice. Hazra said she was most concerned about the need to convince consumers to purchase the grain.

“I grew up eating millet, but people in America think it’s only fit for birds,” Hazra said. “Our most significant challenge will be getting people to accept that millet is not just bird seed but actual, wholesome, nutritious human food.”

Barriers notwithstanding, the Millet Project’s members were pleased with the outcome of their efforts to date and with the turnout at Sunday’s exhibit. Both Hazra and Peggy Lemaux, a fellow member of the project, attributed their success to the assistance from the campus.

“We have had truly phenomenal support — I don’t think there’s anything else they could have actually done,” Lemaux said, stressing the monetary and logistical contributions provided to the project by campus organizations.

Hoffman noted the important role of the University of California in ensuring the success of projects such as Hazra’s and of other efforts at the farm, which have produced and distributed more than 18,000 pounds of organic produce to homeless shelters, old-age homes and the Berkeley Food Pantry from just more than 1 acre of land as well as free water from the university.

He attributed this culture of support and collaboration to the efforts of community activists who, in previous years, had engaged in multiple protests of the UC Board of Regents’ decision to develop the Gill Tract into a retail and residential space.

While protests have died down, Hoffman’s fellow volunteers remained concerned with the university’s plans for the Gill Tract, given what they consider a pressing need to invest more resources into urban agricultural systems. Ten acres of the Gill Tract is being used for agricultural research overseen by the campus’s College of Natural Resources and will not be cleared as part of the mixed-use project.

“The Millet Project is an incredible example of sustainable-food-systems research that can end up helping families right here in the Bay Area,” said Effie Rawlings, a volunteer at the farm who attended the event. “We need more land for projects like this, not for developments that could be put in any suburb in any city.”

 

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishaansriv.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the university plans to convert almost 19 acres of the 20-acre Gill Tract into real estate for private commercial developments. In fact, 10 acres of the Gill Tract is being used for agricultural research overseen by the campus’s College of Natural Resources and will not be cleared as part of the mixed-use project.