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
demand is typically 5 lb. of nitrogen and 2.5 lb. of phosphorus per acre, based on each 1" of moisture.
"Field evaluations indicate that sesame produces roughly 100 lb. per inch of available moisture," Riney reports.
Net profits can range widely, from $100 to $650 per acre, even though sesame is relatively easy to grow.
"Planting it at the right seeding rates into heavy wheat straw is difficult," Martin says. She uses a conventional planter and a sorghum plate to plant the sesame seed at 6 lb. per acre in split 30" rows. As her management prowess with sesame improves, she hopes to eventually plant only 4 lb. of seed per acre.
Riney adds that sesame does not require specialized equipment. Any maintained planter or drill and a combine with a platform header are all that is needed.
Martin says that sesame has a deep taproot and helps provide soil tilth and aeration. The crop has no significant pest or disease problems.
Sesaco reports that sesame provides integrated crop management benefits by suppressing cotton root rot and root knot nematodes. Sesame also is not fed on by deer or feral hogs, which don’t care for the taste of the plants.
As for weed pressure, Martin says, straw from the preceding wheat crop helps minimize weed problems.
Riney says that following sesame, farmers have reported yield increases in cotton, peanuts, wheat, alfalfa, sorghum and corn.
While sesame is very drought-tolerant and can withstand great heat, it produces higher yields under irrigation. However, it does not like moisture-saturated soils.