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Open Sesame

February 11, 2012
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
p39 Open Sesame 1
Larkin Martin says sesame is a great option for double-crop acreage; it also helps soil tilth.  
 
 

This ancient crop offers new opportunity for farmers

The tales of the Arabian Nights, Big Bird and McDonald’s share an unlikely common tie: sesame, an ancient crop that dates back more than 4,000 years but is fairly new to the U.S.

In 2008, sesame became difficult for U.S. food companies to obtain due to skyrocketing commodity prices. McDonald’s, for one, struggled to source the nutty flavored, tear-shaped bits of grain for the bun that frames its Big Mac sandwich. A commercial baker for the company asked a farmer friend if she could help.

"I told her I didn’t know anything about growing sesame seed, but that I would check into it," says Larkin Martin of Courtland, Ala.

Her research revealed that sesame grows well under the same environmental factors that favor cotton production. That intrigued Martin, whose family has grown no-till dryland cotton on their farm since the mid-1800s.

She decided to give sesame a try and grew 100 acres of the crop in 2009. She grew 400 acres of sesame in 2010 and expects to expand her sesame acreage again in 2012.

"We’re the only farmers in Alabama that are growing it," she says.

New to America. Sesame is grown on roughly 15 million acres annually. Of those, only 60,000 acres are in the U.S., primarily in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Common uses for sesame today include cooking oil, margarine and specialty dips, such as hummus. Manufacturers also use the oil to produce soaps, lubricants and cosmetics.

Martin says sesame is also a good fit for double-crop purposes. "After we harvest wheat in June, we typically plant soybeans, but they can fail if they don’t get enough moisture, and the sesame is drought-tolerant," she says.

Sesame is a good replacement for crops that are grown in moisture or heat-stressed environments, says Jerry Riney, director of commercial production for Sesaco. The Texas-based company specializes in sesame seed and offers grower contracts.

"Sesame is planted after soil temperatures are above 70°F with 120 days before a freeze," Riney says.

At maturity, the pole-shaped sesame plants stand about 36" tall. Each plant produces two

dozen or more 2"-long green pods, which contain the highly prized, ivory-colored seeds.

Return on investment. Riney says farmers typically invest between $8 and $24 per acre to grow sesame, depending on their seeding rates, row spacings and fertility program. The fertility

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Mid-February 2012

 

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