Evaluating an under-utilized species for climate resilient forage and cover crop options in North Central Region cropping systems

Progress report for LNC22-462

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $249,932.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Krista Isaacs
Michigan State University
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Project Information


There are many agroecological and nutritional benefits to increasing the diversity of plant species in our food systems. Farming systems that grow diverse food, fiber, and fodder can provide environmental, social, and economic advantages such as the recycling of nutrients, control of micro-climates, regulation of soil resources, dietary diversity, and novel crops for niche markets. Utilizing diverse cover crops and forages are one way that farmers can increase agrobiodiversity on-farm, providing some insurance against environmental shocks such as heavy rainfall events, temporal drought, or disease. As temperatures increase and rainfall becomes more sporadic in the midwest, species that can withstand low-rainfall and thrive in mid-summer may fill an important niche in several types of farming systems. Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is an annual, warm-season and drought tolerant grass used for food and fodder in West Africa. It has potential as a short-season crop in the North Central region, including as a cover crop planted mid- and late- summer on vegetable farms, after winter wheat as a cover and for grazing, as a winter-kill no-till crop, and as a food crop. The project objectives are to test the potential of fonio in these four NCR farming systems through participatory engagement with farmers. Farmer designed and managed field trials will compare fonio with other cover crops and forages in order to assess agronomic performance. These objectives were formulated based on two years of data growing fonio in West Michigan, in collaboration with growers, and building on preliminary feedback from a farmer survey. In the first year of the project, we will collect data on optimal planting dates for the different systems and test fonio in each system. In years two and three, we will expand the on-farm trials to two farmers per system. Partners include organic vegetable farms, conventional corn-soy-wheat farms, immigrant farmers in Detroit, and the Malian Association of Michigan. Co-learning workshops, interviews with growers, and a survey will be used to assess farmer interest, challenges, and willingness to grow fonio. The outcomes of this research will be shared with grower networks and MSU Extension. The results are directly relevant to farmers as the research will provide evidence for the performance and feasibility of fonio in four systems including optimal planting dates, weediness factors, over-wintering, forage quality, and planting methods. This information will inform future steps for fonio production and identifying niche markets for fonio in the United States.

Project Objectives:


  1. Evaluate fonio as an alternative warm-season forage, cover, and grain in the North Central Region 
  2. Evaluate fonio as a late-season crop following wheat harvest for grazing and as a weed suppressant for no-till organic vegetables
  3. Assess the opportunities and challenges to the utilization of fonio

Learning and action outcomes: 

  • Determine grain and biomass yield, winter-kill, and forage quality of a new warm season climate-resilient grass 
  • Key planting, harvesting, and cleaning methods developed and tested by farmers within their systems
  • Identification of constraints and opportunities for utilization of fonio as a cover crop, forage, and food grain

Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is an annual, warm-season and drought tolerant grass used for food and fodder in West Africa. It has potential as a short-season crop in the North Central region, including as a cover crop planted mid- and late- summer on vegetable farms, after winter wheat as a cover and for grazing, as a winter-kill no-till crop, and as a food crop. The project objectives are to test the potential of fonio in these four NCR farming systems through participatory engagement with farmers. Farmer designed and managed field trials will compare fonio with other cover crops and forages in order to assess agronomic performance. The first year of the project was focused on testing fonio on farms for different purposes, including as a cover crop that suppresses weeds under a perennial crop (asparagus), after wheat harvest, and for grain in an urban context.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jacob Quincy - Technical Advisor
  • Siriman Sidibe
  • Joseph Paling - Technical Advisor
  • Drew Mitchell


  1. Fonio will suppress weeds and reduce labor and tillage requirements in perennial row crops. 
  2. Fonio will provide a warm-season grass cover crop after the harvest of wheat in a corn, soy, wheat system.
  3. Fonio will not reach full grain maturity in Michigan due to photo-period sensitivity and susceptibility to frost.
Materials and methods:

This research aims to understand the potential of fonio across various farming systems and to evaluate the crop based on the performance indicators identified and developed by the various types of growers in these systems. The general approach of this research is a participatory process in which farmers and researchers are engaged partners in the design, learning, and innovations necessary to test a crop new in the region. We will use a combination of on-farm trials, farmer discussions and workshops, and joint learning and innovation to evaluate this crop. This learning process will be documented to gain insights for fonio production and learning on the process of engagement with the growers. In addition, we will conduct qualitative interviews with farmers and local restaurants to learn about the challenges in production, potential, and likelihood of using fonio in their farming systems and restaurants. We aim to answer the following research questions:

  1. Within NCR farming systems, what are functional niches for fonio (Digitaria exilis) as a cover crop, food crop, or forage?
  2. Within individual farming systems, how does fonio perform compared to common standards? 
  3. What are the barriers and opportunities for adoption at farm level as a cover crop, forage, or food crop?

In order to address these research questions and achieve the associated learning and action outcomes, we propose two phases over the three years of the project. In Phase I of the research we will connect with farmers already committed to growing fonio. In Phase II, we will expand the number of growers and continue on-farm experimentation growing fonio. 

  • Phase I (January 2023 - December 2023) 
    • Initiation of three on-farm trials with partner farmers in three different systems
    • Farmer designed observational plantings of fonio in their cropping systems
    • Identification of new farmers for Phase II 
    • Outreach and education about fonio in Michigan
    • Testing of planting methods
  • Phase II of the project (January 2024-December 2025) 
    • Expansion to 5 farms conducting on-farm trials in different systems for 2 seasons
    • Cooking demonstrations with West African Immigrant groups based in Detroit
    • Experiments designed with the farmers, based on how they want to test fonio for each type of farming system
    • Measurements of soil quality, grain yield, forage quality, and biomass for cover and forage in relevant systems
    • Identification of tools and methods for processing fonio grain in Michigan
    • Workshops and feedback sessions with all farmer participants and relevant grower groups sharing experiences growing fonio, management strategies, and explanation of practices that work or can be improved
    • Expanded outreach efforts through MSU Extension and grower groups
    • Engagement at two conferences for both farmers and researchers
    • Surveys to assess farmer and local restaurant interest in fonio as a grain
    • On-going testing of planting methods
    • Publication of 2 journal articles

The research project is designed to be on-farm with growers developing a management plan together with the researchers. This is an opportunity for farmers and researchers to learn together about the potential of fonio and develop methods for growing it in the region. Our intentions are to support in the planting, sampling, and harvesting (as needed) of the crop. Farmers will prepare the land, manage the crop within their system plan, harvest/tend the crop as intended, and engage with our research team to develop their management plan, including visual monitoring guidelines and interactive engagement into the progress and challenges associated with growing the crop. 

Learning outcome 1: Determine optimal planting dates, grain and biomass yield, winter-kill, and forage quality of a new warm season climate-resilient grass 

In year 1 (2023), we will plant fonio on farms to assess growth under a variety of environments and systems. The identified planting systems are a forage crop after wheat, a cover crop late summer, grain production, and as a cover crop in an organically managed no-till system. There will be planting date trials at Fat Blossom Farm (FBF) and 3 additional farmers will grow and test fonio in the other planting systems indicated above. Data on grain yield, biomass yield, and forage quality will be collected from all farms. Building on information collected in prior years of planting fonio at FBF in West Michigan, we will test dates at FBF. Current data indicates that early June planting is optimal for full grain fill whereas an early July planting resulted in poor grain fill. Grain yield will be evaluated under two planting times, between Memorial day and June 21. In the wheat grazing system and for a cover crop, planting dates will be based on the variability in environments across Michigan and the timing of wheat harvest: a) mid-July for southern regions of Michigan and b) the first week of August for northern Michigan. The preparation for the no-till system will start in 2022 (before this grant) and be the first test of a late season planting date. 


Farmer partnerships We have commitment from three farmers (Jacob Quincy, Brent Wagner, and Siriman Sidibe) and several farms and grower groups have indicated interest, including an urban farm in Detroit for grain and a biodynamic farm in West Michigan. We have communicated with several small scale grain producers and millers that can support processing and equipment recommendations. 


Planning Management plans will be developed individually with each grower dependent on their growing system and goals in terms of planting this crop. This management plan will be used in each phase and year of the trials. The lead PI and advisors will work with the growers to develop a plan that considers land preparation methods, grazing activities, harvest, equipment, harvesting tools and conditioning, and signals general dates for observational or physical data collection (conducted by research technicians). Management plans will lay out the division of labor between farmers and researchers and help support open communication and learning with the whole team. 


Measurements Each farming system requires distinct management, measurements, controls, and harvest techniques. Throughout the season, based on the management plan, we will monitor the fonio crops and collect data on growth, flowering dates, biomass, grain fill, and yield. For all trials, we will collect 8-inch soil cores before planting and after harvest or winter-kill for comparative purposes in different soil types and to assess nutrient quality. For the grain trials, we will collect yield data at harvest time and test various forms of harvesting and processing together with the growers. Forage quality will be assessed twice during the growing season using randomly placed quadrants from which all above-ground biomass will be clipped, weighed for fresh weight, dried, weighed for dry weight, and analyzed for forage quality using near infrared reflectance spectroscopy. For post wheat harvest, biomass yield at early and late planting will be collected and soil quality will be compared with conventional wheat and another cover crop. The forage growers will want to actively graze the fonio plots, thus we will have a test plot for biomass separate from the grazed trials. The no-till system for organic producers will be compared with more traditional cover, decided by the farmer.


Weediness Factors of concern for fonio production are the invasiveness as a weed, winter kill, and if seed drops, whether it will grow in late spring. We observed over two years that fonio plants died with the first hard frost and did not recover. The winter after the first year fonio was planted at FBF, we observed no new fonio plants emerging in that seed bed. To test if seeds survive the winter, we will conduct lab tests on over-wintering potential of fonio seed and plant test plots at FBF to test this in real conditions. Lab tests will assess germination and viability of fonio seeds before and after simulating over-winter temperatures for 90 days. On-farm test plots will examine a) seedling emergence on plots planted with fonio in which viable seed was allowed to fall, and b) seedling emergence on plots purposely planted with viable seed in the fall. 


Learning outcome 2: Key planting, harvesting, and cleaning methods developed and tested by farmers and others within their systems


Fonio has not previously been grown in Michigan, nor to our knowledge in the United States. Thus, equipment options for planting and harvesting in various types of systems are unknown. While fonio is produced almost entirely with manual labor or oxen in West Africa and the grain is mostly processed through hand winnowing, there is some existing processing equipment for removing sand, chaf, and other weed seeds. We propose to test different types of methods for planting, harvesting, and cleaning the grain. In 2021, team members Olson and Paling successfully planted fonio at MSU Agronomy Farm with a Carter seeder. FBF broadcast fonio by hand. A hand-crank broadcast seeder would also work, but other equipment and tools for planting need to be identified that are more suitable to growers in this region. This learning outcome will build on the innovative knowledge of growers to identify ways to plant fonio in their systems, potentially with modifications to existing equipment. 


In terms of harvesting for grain, fonio is very labor intensive, and the project team has only experimented with hand harvesting, which is not a viable option for U.S. systems. The farms that choose to grow fonio as a grain will provide a learning opportunity for experimenting with different methods for harvesting the crop. Harvest for hay has more ready options that may be experimented with based on farmer interests.


Finally, we will evaluate different methods for conditioning (cleaning) fonio for seed or as a grain. The seed at FBF was cleaned of other weed seeds, but it has not been processed for cooking. Processing fonio for cooking is the most arduous task for women in West Africa, as they pound the hard seed by hand to remove the seed coat. Other forms of milling fonio need to be explored for it to be a viable grain crop. Potential resources for considering how to process grain will be explored by drawing on the collective knowledge of small grain farmers and millers in the region. 


Learning outcome 3: Identification of constraints and opportunities for utilization of fonio as a cover crop, forage, and food grain

The two phase structure of this proposal is designed to generate foundational information about the uses of fonio in Michigan farming systems. In the first year, a core set of growers will produce fonio on their farm and the intent is to have feedback sessions to collect information on issues, concerns, and innovations related to producing fonio. This information will be shared in the management plan and through conversations with the growers. A feedback session will be conducted with the whole team to discuss strategies for the following phase. Phase II will start with a workshop between first year growers and new growers in order to share information, provide advice on management plans, develop additional evaluation criterias, and generate innovative ideas for equipment, harvesting, and processing. These workshops are also an opportunity to create relationships where growers from diverse systems can share ideas and seek advice. 


The information collected after two years of data will be used to generate shareable information about fonio production through MSU Extension. We will conduct several surveys for different groups. The first will be a baseline and endline survey to gauge awareness about and interest in growing fonio. The second will be with participating farmers to understand their underlying motivation for testing a new crop, learn about challenges, potential, and likelihood of adoption. The third will be with restaurants, vendors, and customers at farmers markets to evaluate fonio as a product. The purpose of the surveys is to understand more broadly farmers interests and reasons for growing or marketing an unknown crop.

Research results and discussion:
A. Plantings:
1. Repetition of density experiment (reference K. Isaacs and A. Dingus)
2. Cover Mixture Observation
3. Asparagus Weed Suppression
1. Density experiment was planted on June 9th and 10th. After a 30 day dry spell, rain returned on June 12th and germination was strongly evident within 2 weeks. However, the density experimentation did not result in calculable results. Local crabgrass populations made it difficult if not impossible to determine Fonio colonization of the plots. After discussions and some attempts to weed out some of the crabgrass population and light infiltration of other weed species from the plots, it was determined that the plots were unusable for accurate calculations.
2. Cover mixture observation - Fonio was planted in a mixture with oats, crimson clover, and Camelina. The Fonio and Camelina quickly germinated in the beds, followed by the oats which quickly came to dominate the plot as the understory was colonized by the crimson clover. In the fall of 2023, only the Camelina had flowered, and in the spring of 2024, the plot is almost entirely made up of a vibrant crimson clover population.
3. Fonio planted in 1 meter wide beds as weed suppression to the north and south of an east-west planting of 100 Asparagus plants. Calculations for the planting were high density (40 kg/ha on the south side of the asparagus planting and 50 kg/ha to the north). Planting occurred at the end of June after the asparagus had begun to flower. Asparagus was hand weeded in the row and the 1 meter span to either side of the planting was tilled to prep before seeding the Fonio. Fonio germination was observed within 7 days (this is in a field that receives irrigation) and significant growth and colonization of the area was observed in less than 3 weeks. While some weeds (primarily pigweed and lambsquarter) did appear in the beds, they were significantly reduced as compared to adjoining beds which did not receive the Fonio treatment. In the spring of 2024, the remaining biomass left from the Fonio planting continued to offer significant weed suppression with populations of weeds in the beds reduced by 70-80 percent as compared to adjoining beds. The Fonio was planted late enough that it was not able to flower and set seed so the Fonio planting itself offered 0 increase in weed pressure for the areas planted.
B. Planting fonio after wheat harvest
Fonio was planted near Traverse City in early August after the wheat harvest. The seed was drilled at 1/4 inch into the wheat stubble. Farmer reported that the seed did not germinate. This may be due to the colder climate or the later time of the year. Seeds were tested for germination and it was greater than 90%. Further research is needed on germination temperatures and we will test planting up north in another location. That farmer is not interested in continuing with fonio.
C. Fonio as a grain
Fonio was planted via broadcast at a rate of 30 kg/ha on a newly turned urban lot in Detroit but it didn't reach maturity for harvest. It was left in the field as a cover and tilled in the spring to be planted again, at an earlier date. The farmer aimed to plant earlier in 2024.
Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

To date, the educational approach has been one on one with the PI of the project and the specific growers. This has been a process of information sharing about the crop and then planning together, based on the needs of the grower, the seed rates, planting type, and management methods. In the future, we will have a grower workshop for everyone to discuss, including those that are interested in producing fonio.

Informal information sharing about fonio has taken place at seed swaps and organic farming meetings around Michigan. We have used these venues as a potential place to recruit new growers to test fonio and as a way to share information about the crop. We will continue to expand these efforts.

Project Activities

Farmer observational study of fonio as a cover crop and weed suppressent in a perennial system
Farmer testing fonio as a grain in Detroit
Fonio after wheat

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Consultations
3 Tours

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers participated
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

In the first year of the project, outreach was focused on engaging with farmers that were interested in growing and testing fonio, sharing expertise with farmers growing fonio as part of the project, and engaging with farmers and community members about fonio at seed swaps and grower meetings. This included explaining the nutritional properties of fonio, its origin, and potential uses of fonio in the Midwest. These activities were also used as a way to recruit growers for the second year. Interest was peaked and a few growers were recruited. Several indicated they would be interested in the future.


Learning Outcomes

Key areas taught:

    Project Outcomes

    Key practices changed:
      3 New working collaborations
      Success stories:

      Establishment of a new small farm in Detroit that will be used for fonio production (if viable), vegetable production, and community composting.

      Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.