The grass, native to the highlands of Ethiopia, grows best at altitude, likes sun and doesn’t require much irrigation.
That makes it ideal for the Fallon farm country, where altitude and sunlight are plentiful but water is in short supply.
Enter John Getto and Dave Eckert, partners in Desert Oasis Teff of Fallon, a leading northern Nevada teff grower.
In the past several years, the farmers have introduced the new crop, invested $100,000 in equipment — some of it custom-made — for harvesting and cleaning, found a milling partner to grind teff grain into flour, and begun selling the flour to customers across the country.
“This has been a process of trial and error,” Getto said. “Almost no one you go to in the industry knows anything about teff.”
The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension was a different matter. It provided equipment, grant and planting assistance to Getto and Eckert, who were willing to take a chance on a new crop when other farmers weren’t.
Today, their customers are mainly Ethiopian restaurants needing teff flour to make injera, a spongy flatbread used to scoop up salads and stews, that’s essential to Ethiopian cooking.
The most promising market for teff, however, consists of people who are gluten-intolerant or who are trying to eat more healthfully.
Teff lacks the protein that irritates gluten intolerance, but it’s rich in other proteins, fiber, calcium and other nutrients.
“The health food stores, the gluten-free — that’s where we think things are going,” Eckert said. “That’s the future.”
Alfalfa and corn still might be the kings of Fallon farming, but drought, increasing municipal water use, and the need to rotate crops to preserve soil fertility and reduce weeds have increased teff’s appeal.
Teff is a low-water crop, and because it flourishes in Fallon, it could be rotated every few years into alfalfa and corn fields.
About half of the teff sold as grain or flour in the United States is grown in Nevada.
Getto and Eckert plant 35 varieties of teff across 100 acres as a primary crop, almost all of it going to flour production. But because of weeds, the farmers said they, too, have had to consider a rotation crop for their primary teff.
Weeds, in fact, pose an ongoing challenge to teff farming because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t yet approved herbicides for use on teff, Eckert said.
Teff grain is minuscule — 1/150th the size of wheat. There are 1.2 to 1.3 million seeds per pound.
Last year, Desert Oasis harvested and cleaned millions upon millions of those seeds, sending enough to the mill in Redding, Calif., to make possible annual flour sales of 400,000 pounds.
But because of its small size and sheer number, harvesting and cleaning teff grain isn’t like processing other grains.
Agricultural equipment is made for larger grains, something Getto and Eckert discovered when they set out to become teff tycoons.
They improvised at first, rigging together a hopper, seeder, a sort of Dumpster and a fan, but too much waste got through.
Today, their harvesting and cleaning process includes a hulking clipper cleaner, housed in an outbuilding and modified from wheat use, in which five custom screens filter teff seeds while dirt, pigweed and other undesirables are sucked out through waste ducts.
“At first, we didn’t know where the seed came out,” Getto said of the machine. “We walked around trying to figure it out. You have to keep going outside, looking to see if too much teff is being sucked out, then adjust it.”
Teff flour, besides being injera’s main ingredient, also can be used for baking, and teff grain can be cooked for hot cereal, “sort of like cream of wheat,” Getto said. “My sons do that all the time. They love it. It’s a whole grain, so there’s more nutrients.”
The market for teff flour far exceeds the market for teff grain, and both are more commercially valuable than the 2,000-pound polybags filled with harvest waste. What to do with them?