Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) is the second most commonly grown species of millet after pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum). It has a long history of cultivation in East Asian countries mainly China, where it has been grown since the sixth millennium BC. At present, it is grown for food and feed. In the USA it is mainly preferred for high quality hay.
In Nepal it is used as a food grain and is cultivated in high hills and mid hills mainly in the districts of the Karnali zone. Known as kaguno in Nepali, foxtail millet used to be common in other parts of the country as well including Kaski and Lamjung.
Ghanpokhara is a village development committee (VDC) in Lamjung district and part of the Annapurna Conservation Area overseen by the Bhujung unit office. The altitude in Ghanpokhara ranges from 850 to 6983 masl at the tip of Lamjung Himal but the human settlement is limited between 850 to 2175 masl. Approximately 80% of its 57 km2 area is covered by forest, rangeland whereas the remaining 20% is under human settlement and agricultural cultivation.
Farmers in Ghanpokhara grow four varieties of kaguno, viz., Tinmase (also called Seto or Ande), Bariyo (also called Parbeli), Rato and Kalo (seed collected at the Diversity Fair in 2014 followed by characterization in Diversity Block in 2015). Rato kaguno is considered to have medicinal value while seto kaguno is most commonly grown due to better taste.
Kaguno used to be grown after clearing forest i.e., slash and burn at lower altitudes between 1000 to 1400 masl. It is generally sown in Falgun (February/March), it matures in Asar (June/July) and is harvested by cutting the panicle with sickle. The panicles are mashed by hands or feet to separate grain from panicle. It is sun dried and dehusked in dhiki three times before it is finally ready to cook and eat. It is cultivated as a mono crop in Ghanpokhara contrasting with the practice in Karnali where it is cultivated in mixed cropping system together with finger millet
It grows very well in dry condition. It is considered as a famine food (anikal ko anna) as it is harvested in Asar (June/July), i.e., earlier than maize and at time of food deficiency. “Rice and finger millet are harvested in Kartik (October/November) and families have little remaining stock by Asar,” says 75 years old Ommaya Gurung.
Kaguno can be consumed even on the day of harvest by roasting grain from young/immature panicles. Locals refer to it as, “bihana khet ma, beluka pet ma,” literally, “in the field at morning, in the belly by night.” People take it as food (kharcha) while going for wild honey hunting, which is one of the unique features of indigenous community of Nepal, mainly the Gurung community.
Cultivation of kaguno is declining in most of the hilly regions of Nepal, including Ghanpokhara. Mr. Jitman Biswakarma, a 47 year old farmer of Ghimrang recalls, “In the past, almost every household grew it, but nowadays only a handful of farmers grow it. We used to have it as bhaat, kheer, selroti and also made raksi (local liquor) by mixing with finger millet.”
The weeding and post-harvest processing is considered tedious, one of reasons for its decreasing cultivation. Lack of labour due to outmigration of youth means that more tedious agricultural crops with limited pre-existing markets are being left behind. Also the young generation do not prefer to eat it. Jitman adds, “It used to be a staple food but with easy access to polished rice from the city, no one bothers to farm and eat kaguno anymore.”
Yet, 10% of farmers in Ghanpokhara still continue to grow it covering an average area of 1.2 ropani (600 m2) per household (Local Crops Project baseline survey in 2014). Some farmers grow it as they do not want to leave their land barren. Some state their wish to save old seeds and traditional crops. Ms. Rewant Kumari Gurung of Sene added that unlike maize, kaguno is not damaged by monkeys.
There are farmers unknowingly contributing to conservation of kaguno. “I like to grow and eat old local crops, may be due to my old age representing old generation” says the 45-year old Prem Bahadur Gurung with an innocent smile. He adds, “Nowadays kaguno is rare, so my children are curious to try new dish and love it.”
Prem Bahadur’s experience challenges the general perception that young generation will not consume kaguno. Value addition and creating new recipes can be possible options for promotion of these crops. Nutritional awareness can be another option. Low glycemic index and gluten free nature of millets can be highlighted to attract consumers with such needs or interests.
Despite its importance for local food security and nutrition, little research has been done in foxtail millet making it a neglected and underutilized species (NUS) from a research and development perspective. To fulfill this gap, the Local Crops Project is working on foxtail millet and 7 other neglected crops in four high mountain districts of Nepal. The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility, implemented by UNEP and jointly executed by Bioversity International, the National Agriculture Genetic Resources Centre (NAGRC) – Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC), the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and LI-BIRD.
Originally published on 13 October 2015 at www.libird.org