From the corner of North Fremont Street and Williams Avenue, the Williams Street Market looks like an ordinary convenience store. But inside, beyond the Fritos and M&Ms, Ethiopian specialties pack the shelves—honey wine, green coffee beans, orange lentils, and teff flour in heaping sacks.
“Teff is the main Ethiopian food,” says Tamrat Alemu, the shop’s 34-year-old owner. “We eat teff bread [injera] with everything we cook.” Farmers across the US are planting this ancient grain—high in calcium, iron, and protein—largely to serve the nation’s Ethiopian community, which has more than doubled over the past 12 years to almost 250,000. And now, thanks to farmer and miller Tom Hunton at Camas Country Mill, the Willamette Valley has joined this mini-movement.
Two years ago, Alemu heard from a fellow parishioner at Southeast Portland’s Saint Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church that Hunton was growing teff near Eugene. He immediately ordered 35,000 pounds. (In addition to his market, Alemu runs a small wholesale business, distributing teff to Ethiopian restaurants and food carts in Portland and Seattle.) “I prefer to work with a local farmer,” says Alemu, who previously bought from an Idaho cooperative.
The 68-year-old Hunton started growing and milling the tiny ochre-colored grain four years ago as an experiment, not realizing he was stumbling into a booming new niche market. “Ethiopian distributors are ordering it by the palletful,” Hunton says. To satisfy the diaspora’s demand, Hunton convinced five other Willamette Valley farmers to plant teff, promising to buy whatever they grew. This year’s drought conditions elsewhere left Hunton’s inbox overflowing with inquiries.
“I’ve had bakeries in Virginia offer a much higher price than what we charge local customers,” Hunton says. “I said, ‘No, we’re loyal to who we’re working with.’” He estimates he’s selling 230,000 pounds of teff per year to Alemu and a Minneapolis-based Ethiopian distributor, and he hopes this fall’s harvest will exceed that.
Alemu becomes animated when he talks about his collaboration with “Mr. Tom.” This summer, Hunton planted a new seed variety, ivory teff, that Alemu procured from Ethiopia. (Ivory teff has a milder flavor than brown teff, but the same high nutritional quality.) But mainly, Alemu appreciates having a local source for this staple.
“The fresher the flour, the more powerful its fermentation,” he says. His customers—including Queen of Sheba and Habesha restaurants in Portland, Cafe Selam in Seattle, and walk-ins off Williams—agree. Every day, Alemu makes injera from scratch on two round griddles in the back of the market, and every day, his injera sells out.
“You’d be surprised who buys it,” says Alemu, laughing. “Portlanders who love Ethiopian restaurants buy injera from me.” Maybe, given broader local food trends, this ancient grain’s growth is no surprise: teff also happens to be gluten-free.