By Laura Dorle, Intern

Laura is a student intern from the University of Minnesota who is helping CTI manage its Orphan Crops Plot—a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.

Most of our crops are now in their 13th week of growth, and most of them are doing well. There has, though, been a fair share of challenges in achieving their success.

Last year, one of the biggest challenges once the grain crops (primarily pearl millet and sorghum) completed pollination and reached their milk stage was a population of hungry birds that was eating away at the fresh grain. The team tried hard to deter the birds, using netting, noise makers, metallic streamers, and everything they could, but the birds only became more relentless in feeding on the grain.

Well, those sparrows and other small birds are at it again. The bird issue was a large part of the discussion before the crops were planted. The team made the decision that this year we would bag the heads of sorghum and pearl millet as protection. Corn breeders at the University use special paper bags to prevent cross-pollination, and we were able to access some of those bags for the sorghum. Pearl millet, on the other hand, has a head that is much longer and narrower than the sorghum head. For that, we have used paper bags sent to us by ARS/USDA pearl millet researchers in Georgia. Though we were not totally sure about the effect that these bags would have, after a couple weeks, the heads that have been bagged are doing much better (untouched so far) than those without (see pictures below for visual).

Of course birds are not the only pests running around our urban ecosystem. We’ve had bunnies chewing on the Bambara groundnuts. The Bambara groundnuts are looking sickly, but we’ve since fenced them so maybe we have some chance. We also have had to continue to fight a virus induced by leafhoppers in the legumes. Finally, we’ve noticed that the fonio is rather behind where we thought it would be by this point. Some of the team hypothesized that like finger millet, a crop from last year with a similar problem. Day-length sensitivity may be an issue (reproductive stage triggered only by shorter days than we have in summer), but so far we have not come across any conclusive literature.

Obviously, growing season pests are a problem, especially when we have very little of each crop to begin with, but they’re not our focus in this project. Luckily, there are many researchers who are focusing on how to reduce pests and disease to increase healthy yields. With those increased yields, come tough questions on better post-harvest storage, market access, and efficient processing. Those are the questions that CTI is addressing, and as our crops get ready for harvest within the next month or so, I’m excited to learn more and test some of their innovative technologies. More to come on that!

Meanwhile, if you live in the Twin Cities area, feel free to come visit the plot yourself (PDF with directions). If not, we’ll continue to do the best we can to relay the experience virtually.

Published in Orphan Crops

By Laura Dorle, Intern —

Groundnuts (also known as peanuts)

Last summer, CTI and the University of Minnesota (UMN) collaborated in growing six “Orphan Crops”: teff, finger millet, pearl millet, sorghum, grain amaranth, and groundnuts (peanuts).

Orphan crops are important food crops for subsistence farmers in many African as well as Asian and South American communities, as they have a strong cultural importance, and are often more nutritious and drought resistant than many of the large commodity crops.

Most agricultural research has focused on increasing the yields of commodity crops, such as wheat or corn. However, simply growing more food is not enough—not when between 15-50% of crops are lost after harvest, often due to post-harvest spoilage and inefficient processing methods. That is why CTI is committed to filling some of the gaps in the research by working on orphan crops, focusing on the post-harvest side of the value chain helping bring rural farmers out of subsistence living while improving their livelihoods.

Tiffanie Stone, a recent graduate of the University, was the student intern on the St. Paul Campus plot last year with the guidance of Agronomy Professor Paul Porter and other UMN and CTI colleagues.

This year, we are at it again, and I’ve joined the team, along with many of the great folks from CTI and UMN who originated the project. I’m Laura Dorle, student intern with the Orphan Crops project and a junior in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Program at the U. With a particular interest in food, agriculture, and international development, and a great desire to learn a lot more in those areas, this project was the perfect opportunity to do so.

The plot has been off to a good start thus far. The crops were planted in late May. In addition to the crops from last year, we also planted cowpeas, fonio, quinoa, mung beans, and Bambara groundnuts. Most have been doing very well, despite heavy rains early and intense heat. As usual, there is group of stealthy weeds that are thriving right along with them, and a lot of volunteers have been out there working hard to battle them, the leafhoppers, and Japanese beetles.

Orphan Crops Plot

When the crops begin to mature at the end of the summer through the fall, we’ll be able to use them to do field tests of CTI’s post-harvest equipment including prototypes of groundnut processing technologies that are being developed for a program in Malawi and Tanzania funded by the McKnight Foundation. We will also be testing CTI’s new pearl millet processing suite on additional grains.

I’m really excited to be working on this project. Be sure to stay tuned. More updates to come as the process continues! And we’ll be organizing some field visits starting in mid-August!


Published in Orphan Crops