May 11, 2015

Teff: “So we can't grow it here…?”

“So we can’t grow it here…?” probably sounded like a fairly silly question to Melku when I was talking to her about Teff at the Guelph Farmers’ Market (but you never know if you don’t ask, right?).

After a few years working on the ECV Ontario project Ive learned that there are certain ethnic foods, vegetables especially, that are able to be grown in Canada.  These ethnic foods include bok choy, okra, napa cabbage, and I’ve even heard of community gardens attempting to grow the cereal sorghum.  When I was given a chance to learn about Teff a thought took root in my mind that maybe, just possibly, we could try growing it in Canada.

I had already asked Melku a few questions about the growing conditions of Teff and she seemed to sense what I was building up to.  As it turns out Teff cannot be grown in Canada because it is a tropical crop, meaning that it grows poorly in cold regions such as Canada. I felt a bit of hope seep out of me.  Though as our conversation continued, the great potential of Teff restored my hope, except this time for farmers around the world.

Melku assured me that wherever Teff is suited to grow it is fairly easy to grow. Teff is said to be a “reliable cereal for an unreliable climate,” and can grow where many other cereals cannot, such as in regions with limited rainfall, but also in waterlogged soils (Gerbremariam, Zarnkow, and Becker, 2014; Small, 2015). It also remains unaffected by many pests and diseases (Small, 2015), or pest storage problems (Gerbremariam, Zarnkow, and Becker, 2014).  It is sometimes planted mid-season to replace a failing crop (Small, 2015), and in some areas Teff can be harvested twice per year.

Currently Teff is mainly produced by small scale farmers (Small, 2015) in the Horn of Africa.   Later Melku provided me with some more information about the growing conditions of Teff. It grows best where there is about 12 hours of sunshine, an annual rainfall of 750-850mm and up to 1200mm in some areas (just to provide a bit of context, Guelph has an average rainfall of about 931mm), where temperatures vary from 10-27 degrees celsius, and with a growing period that can range from 60-180 days (90-130 days is optimal) (from Deckers et al., 2001).  Clearly there is a large variation in the conditions where Teff can grow, showing its potential as a crop that can be adopted by more farmers both in Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as other tropical areas globally.

Prior to harvesting Teff is extremely delicate when it reaches maturity. Rain and wind can easily cause the light seed to fall since the seeds are only about the size of a pinhead. During the harvest of Teff, the cut stalks are walked on to separate the seed from the straw then mesh is used to separate the grain from the chaff.

Even though Teff seed is mainly harvested in the Horn of Africa, this crop may have a large potential for other tropical regions worldwide with its ability to grow in a wide range of conditions and its growing demand.

Teff has been grown in other areas of the world, including North America, though mainly to feed livestock.  Even though we can’t grow Teff in Canada, it can be grown in some areas of the United States.  Melku herself sources her supply of Teff from a grower in Idaho.  She said that the Teff from North America was different to cook with than Teff from Africa.  To make Injera with the Teff from Idaho that still maintains the same texture as Ethiopian or Eritrean injera, she uses 90% Teff, 5% buckwheat, and 5% millet.

There are several farmers in the United States who are picking up on growing Teff as a grain. For example, the Teff Company ( founded about thirty years ago by Wayne Carlson is in Idaho.  He started growing Teff in the United States after finding similarities in climate and geology in the Snake River Region of Idaho and the East African Rift. The Teff Company mainly sells Teff to Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in North America. Other farmers such as Dave Eckert and John Getto of Nevada (see their story here: learned from Carlson and founded Desert Oasis Teff several years ago. The region is entirely irrigation dependent, and their Teff requires significantly less irrigation than many of the other crops grown in the region.

There is a fairly high demand for Teff right now, especially in North America as it is becoming more widely known as a super grain which is a gluten-free alternative to wheat.  There is not enough production of Teff to meet the demand, making the price of Teff fairly high. This high demand and price of Teff could help farmers and encourage the flow of foreign currency to Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, there is little research and investment in this crop globally and there needs to be improvements (Jeffery, 2015). Farmers need help and support to increase production and make production more efficient.  Melku suggests that farmers could benefit from increased mechanization for clearing land, sowing, harvesting, and packaging Teff. 

Similar to what is happening with Quinoa, there is an in-country shortage of Teff. In the case of Quinoa, the popularity of this super grain caused the local prices in Peru and Bolivia to increase so that local people could no longer afford to buy it (Jeffery, 2015).

Teff is fairly difficult to find due to its popularity.  In Guelph you can find it at the Stone Store and from Melku’s catering business. If you are interested in purchasing Teff or Injera, or learning how to cook Melkus Ethiopian and Eritrean food, you can find her at the Guelph FarmersMarket every Saturday morning or you can visit her at Laza catering 74 Ontario St Guelph ON
Phone: 519-731-2204 & 519-823-8247

Morgan Sage, URA, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph

Sources/ Extra Information:
Deckers, J. A., Yizengaw, T. Negeri, A., Ketema, S. (2001). Teff. In Crop Production in Tropical Africa (pp. 96-101).

Gebremariam, M. M., Zarnkow, M., Becker, T. (2014). Teff (Eragrostis tef) as a raw materia for malting, brewing and manufacturing of gluten-free foods and beverages: A review.  Journal of Food Science Technology, 51(11), 2881-2895. Retrieved from

Jeffery, J. (2015, April 2).  Will Ethiopia’s teff be the next ‘super grain’? Retrieved from

Moon, F. (2013, September 25). Gambling on gluten-free: An Ethiopian grain could mean big bucks for Nevada farmers [web post]. Modern Farmer. Retrieved from

Small, E. (2015). Teff & fonio: Africa’s sustainable cereals. Biodiversity, 16(1), 27-41. Retrieved from

Teff Company. (2015). Ethiopian grain thrives in North America. Retrieved from

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