RICHARDTON, N.D. — Stone Mill LLC at Richardton, N.D., is famous for processing the region’s garbanzo bean and flax crops, but in the past 18 months the company also has been handling an ancient grain from Africa — fonio.

Fonio is the smallest millet seed. “It’s about the size of a piece of sand. it’s very tiny,” Daneen Dressler, vice president of Stone Mill, said. “You have to have very tight machines.”

Stone Mill is removing foreign materials from fonio, as well as packaging, storing and distributing, which is no simple task, Dressler said. The work is part of a close working relationship Stone Mill formalized with Terra Ingredients of Minneapolis two years ago.

”Everything we do in the food space — flaxseed, lentils, chickpeas — we haul those products to Stone Mill and they clean them to food grade,” Malick Diedhiou, commodity trader at Terra Ingredients, said.

Malick Diedhiou, commodities trader at Terra Ingredients of Minneapolis. Terra Ingredient
Malick Diedhiou, commodities trader at Terra Ingredients of Minneapolis. Terra Ingredient

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Terra Ingredients is a wholly-owned subsidiary and the organic/non GMO branch of AgMotion, a specialty grains company based in Minneapolis. AgMotion also is a minority stakeholder in Stone Mill, which is an independent, family-owned company.

Fonio is grown across the southern edge of the Sahel in northern Africa. It is drought-tolerant takes about eight to 10 weeks to grow. It currently must be hand-harvested. The world market was 673,000 tons in 2016.

When cleaned by hand, it would take 90 women working full-time for two straight weeks to fill a single container. Terra built a processing facility in Senegal, Africa, to mechanically streamline the grueling task of harvesting, hulling and cleaning, which is repeated at Stone Mill for the U.S. market.

Because of Terra, fonio, which has never been cultivated on a large scale before will soon become widely available to consumers in the U.S., and will have benefits for the producing regions.

“It’s a pretty small niche market,” Dressler said. “If it competes with anything it’s with quinoa, which already is imported. It’s not going to replace rice or anything that’s a staple here. It’s not something U.S. farmers are going to be interested in (growing) because it’s very labor intensive.”

Fonio is historically consumed mostly in countries like Mali where it is eaten with peanuts, to make Djouka, or in the form of starchy polenta or cakes in countries like, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Nigeria, in central Africa.

The grain is consumed like rice or couscous. It is gluten-free and high in protein and fiber, with a nutty flavor profile. It is used both in savory and sweet dishes and is promoted as being easy to digest with a low glycemic index. Food writers liken it to quinoa for usability.