Forget quinoa and kale, the next big thing is Ethiopian super-grain teff
By Sue Neales
(Tha Australian) – Goulburn Valley farmer James Rovers has never been to Ethiopia or eaten African injera flat bread made from teff flour.
But this month the Numurkah grain grower started harvesting the biggest crop of Ethiopian teff grass ever grown in Australia, as demand for the ancient grain skyrockets along with the new health craze for plant-based superfoods.
Mr Rovers, 28, admits it’s been a fast learning curve, with high-quality teff seed hard to obtain, difficult to grow and, as the smallest grain seed in the world, more complicated to harvest than his usual wheat and canola paddocks.
But surveying his thick, billowing crop of green grass covering nearly 45 hectares in northern Victoria, the innovative farmer is proud of his teff experiment.
“There’s a bit of hype starting to come around teff, just like quinoa a few years ago; others farmers are starting to ask me about it. I think it has real potential (as an alternative crop),” said Mr Rovers, as daughter Elsie, 3, hid in the tall, soft grass.
“I’m trying to diversify from wheat and canola; if everyone else is doing the same thing, you have to be prepared to take a risk to stay ahead of the game.”
But Mr Rovers is not blindly growing teff without a prospective market for the tiny grain. He has the wholehearted support of Melbourne’s 20,000-strong Ethiopian community, many having struggled for years to find imported teff flour of high quality, taste and freshness for their daily bread staple,injera.
That shortage led Ethiopian community leader Haileluel Gebre-Selassie three years ago to approach Shepparton agricultural consultant Les Mitchell, who had dabbled in teff 20 years earlier with little success.
Feeling the timing was right, the two men formed the Teff Australia Company, with an agreement that in its infancy it would operate like a social enterprise, with profits flowing back to local Ethiopian families and its junior soccer club sponsorship.
The first focus has been on finding the best type of teff to grow and providing the locally-grown and milled flour to Mr Gebre-Selassie’s eagerly-waiting community in Melbourne.
But now the rare grain is attracting the attention of the smashed avocado and kale smoothie brigade — actor Gwyneth Paltrow and fashion icon Victoria Beckham are fans — Teff Australia is looking at the crop’s export potential too.
“The market is really starting to be here for high-quality, locally grown teff; my community knows what injera made from quality teff should taste and smell like and Australia’s is the best, the real thing,” Mr Gebre-Selassie said.
“Each year we have more seed to plant, more grain grown and more flour milled; the real opportunity is not limited to (the local African) community or to even to Australia — this is about the huge export potential of teff for people in America and Asia looking for healthier, gluten-free food.”
Teff is a high-fibre natural grain free of genetic modification that is high in iron and calcium, low in sugar and easy for coeliacs, diabetics and those with bowel, colon and digestive problems to eat. Australian-grown teff sells locally for $6/kg and is usually eaten as a reddish or white grain added to salads, sprinkled on cereals as dried teff flakes, or as flour made into porridge and breads.