Teff, a promising new crop, hamstrung by regulations

Teff
Teff is native to Ethiopia

After several years of gaining ground on alfalfa production in the state, Nevada’s teff crop suffered a blow this year because farmers were unable to use herbicides on the grass to kill invasive weeds.

Production of teff, a grass native to Ethiopia, has doubled annually in acreage since 2006, says Jay Davison, an alternative crop specialist with the University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension program. In 2009 Nevada’s teff farmers — about 15 to 20 of them, all located in the northern half of the state — produced about 1.1 million pounds of teff grain. This year Davison says production is expected to decline by more than one-third due to regulatory challenges that led to the banning of certain herbicides farmers had used to kill noxious weeds.

“The EPA yanked chemical use on teff, and that really hurt from a weed-control standpoint,” Davison says.

The problem arises because teff is classified as a miscellaneous crop rather than as a small grain, Davison says. That classification led to warning letters from the Environmental Protection Agency telling farmers to cease use of broadleaf weed-killing chemicals (2,4-D and dicamba) that hadn’t been federally approved for teff.

“Even though we had used it for three or five years, it was a mistake, and it was technically an illegal use,” Davidson says. “It’s one of those things we are working through with the EPA and in others states, such as Idaho, Oregon and California, trying to get labeled.”

Once teff is re-classified as a grain, it will be approved for use with those herbicides, says Davison, who expects it will take a year or two for any re-classification to move through appropriate federal channels. “It is go to hurt us for a while,” he says.

And that’s not good news for Fallon-area teff farmers, who lost much of their crop this year to invasive weeds.

Dave Eckert and John Getto, longtime Fallon alfalfa farmers who started growing teff in the mid-2000s, battled hard to prevent weeds from infiltrating their teff crops, but they were largely unsuccessful.

The two farmers pre-irrigated their fields in late spring to spur growth of broadleaf weeds, and once the weeds came up they were killed off with Roundup. The farmer’s first planting of teff still contained a lot of native grasses, so they killed the crop and replanted. That crop, too, suffered from weed invasion.

“This year was pretty frustrating,” Getto says. “We spent a lot of time trying and trying, and we never did get it.”

Adds Eckert: “It’s something we thought we could whip, and you are not going to be able to. You have to go into a relatively clean field and go from there.”

Getto recently cut his whole teff crop of 270 acres for forage and won’t have any grain production, while Eckert lost 50 acres to broadleaf weeds. Getto says crop insurance should defer some of the financial hardship of the failed crops, and that next spring most of his teff fields will be planted instead with alfalfa.

The duo formed Desert Oasis Teff in 2009 as a way to better market teff grain for U.S. users. Desert Oasis Teff primarily sells its teff grain to buyers in Florida, California, Texas, Michigan and Washington.

Teff is either grown and cut as a high-quality forage hay — it yields two harvests per growing season — or allowed to mature and harvested for grain that’s a staple for use in Injera, or Ethiopian flat bread. The grain has no gluten, so it’s also popular with people who require gluten-free diets.

Declines in production could negatively affect future sales for Desert Oasis Teff.

“We were really afraid going into this year that things were taking off kind of slow, and we had inventory left and didn’t want to get too much ahead,” Eckert says. “Now it’s looking like we will end up short.” Marketing sales of the grain also has been a challenge for Desert Oasis Teff, and lack of available supply could force some customers to contract with different suppliers.

“We are the new ones on the block, and it is kind of tough to get into that niche,” Getto says. “We have moved quite a bit over the years, and the phone keeps ringing and more people are calling wanting to know what we have and what we have to offer.”

UNR’s Davison says teff farmers typically average $150 to $160 a ton for teff forage and produce about five tons per acre. Farmers average 40 to 45 cents a pound for the grain, and they can harvest 1,400 to 1,500 pounds of grain per acre. However, harvesting the grain requires a combine and other specialty equipment.

Rob Sabo, NNBW