By Rhonda Brooks and Jeanne Bernick
Farmers find new gluten-free market opportunities with this stress-tolerant crop
Grain sorghum is called the water-sipping crop, a quality that endears it to many farmers in high-heat, low-moisture parts of the country. Unfortunately, that description applies to just about everywhere this summer, including north central Missouri, where Ron Beetsma and his family farm near Mooresville. By late June, the family’s ground was parched, rain was a distant memory, and their corn crop curled in the field. But not their 1,500-acre-plus grain sorghum crop; it was knee-high and vibrant green.
"If you can get it out of the ground, you’re almost assured a crop," reports Ron, who farms with his sons, Brad and Ben, and his brother, Buddy.
The ability to produce yield in spite of tough conditions is just one reason the Beetsma family has banked on grain sorghum since the late 1970s. The main reason is they have been able to find buyers in local and international markets, one of which provides a 40¢ per bushel
premium above the nearby futures price.
Farmers elsewhere in the U.S. are finding increased market opportunities, due to developments in the gluten-free market.
Gluten-free gold. One in 133 people in the U.S. has celiac disease—an auto-immune disorder that affects the digestion. Those with celiac disease have to avoid gluten in their diet. Wheat, barley and rye, which all contain gluten, are found in a majority of foods. Sorghum, however, is a viable gluten-free alternative to these grains and new markets have opened up for it in recent years. Since 2001, the market for gluten-free products has grown at an annual rate of 25%, according to Packaged Facts, a bakery industry publication.
In response, Archer Daniels Midland introduced a sorghum flour to the market in 2010, intending to
provide lower-cost use for gluten-free applications. DuPont Pioneer sees the increased focus on food and nutrition as a major sales driver for the company, with annual sales growth in its nutrition division expected to hit 7% to 9% in 2012, strengthened by the acquisition of food ingredient company Danisco. DuPont Pioneer recently entered into an agreement with Advanta, a leading sorghum developer.
Sorghum versus corn. In the U.S., sorghum is grown in 14 states, with Kansas and Texas historically ranking as the top two production states.
But the crop has had a tough row to hoe. Grain sorghum has to compete with corn, which is gaining acreage and subsequent productive capacity at the expense of other crops, says Daniel O’Brien, an Extension agri-cultural economist at Kansas State University.
On a year-to-year basis, marginally larger grain sorghum production and total supplies, as well as changes in prospects for U.S. grain sorghum exports (which are down) and food seed and industrial usage (which are trending up), have left projected U.S. ending stocks of grain sorghum flat.
"A fundamental lack of available supplies is leading to reductions in U.S. grain sorghum usage in several major industries," O’Brien explains.
On the other hand, some farmers, such as the Beetsma family, are able to make more money with grain sorghum than they can with corn.
"Our milo will usually beat our corn by 10¢ to 15¢ a bushel," Ben says.
Lower input costs are the reason that sorghum comes out ahead of corn for the Beetsmas. They estimate that their sorghum seed costs $20 an acre versus $100 an acre for corn. Plus, they use 50 lb. an acre less nitrogen in sorghum versus corn.
Then, there’s the ever present issue of available moisture for some farmers, particularly those in the South.
Monte Wright of Perryton, Texas, averaged just 2" of rain during the 2011 growing season and says his sorghum fields worked with him instead of against him. Wright was a 2012 national sorghum yield winner despite the drought conditions, averaging 188 bu. per acre.
"I don’t have the larger wells that other farmers have who raise corn. Sorghum is a life-saver in drought because of its tolerance," he says.
In parts of the Midwest, sorghum is gaining ground as a strong crop for rough soils. "They call our area Little Egypt because it is dry and humid," says John Scates of Sturgis, Ill. "Sorghum fits well on our soils."
"Grain sorghum provides a lot of unique opportunities," adds Samuel Simmons of Harlingen, Texas. A fourth-generation farmer, he grows about 1,200 acres of sorghum each year. "It’s a market that will continue to grow as we find different venues."
Feeding the hungry. Sorghum growers find hope in the continuous stream of new research and studies proving the crop’s prowess as a superfood and a key to world food aid.
Tufts University recently released guidelines for food aid products, suggesting sorghum as a quality alternative grain to expand options in the food aid basket.
Kansas State University researchers are developing new sorghum products for developing nations. Many countries around the world do not accept genetically modified grains, making sorghum a good option.
In an era when dietary demands change quickly and water is scarce, the future for sorghum looks promising. "When I think about today’s economic, health and natural resources environment, it becomes very clear that sorghum is the crop of the future," says David Thomas, a sorghum grower from New Deal, Texas.