By Tim Barker, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
For four decades, sorghum has been a regular fixture in the crop rotation at Beetsma Farms in Chillicothe, Mo.
But not necessarily by choice.
The family's farm comprises some 4,000 acres around the Grand River Bottoms, where clay-heavy soil can be less than hospitable for the crops typically favored in the Midwest.
"It's a real tough soil to farm," said Ron Beetsma, who runs the operation with two sons. "Corn doesn't do any good on it."
Last year, they planted 1,300 acres of sorghum. This year, they're planning 1,600 acres of the grain used for animal feed, ethanol and, increasingly, the gluten-free foods popular with some U.S. consumers.
The Beetsmas aren't alone.
Sorghum is one of only three major crops projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see an increase -- 5.1 percent -- in acreage this year as demand and prices for corn and soybeans continue to be dampened by recent bumper harvests.
Still, with only 7.5 million acres across the nation, sorghum is a relatively insignificant crop when compared to corn at 89 million acres and soybeans at 83.5 million acres. Missouri farmers plant less than 50,000 acres of sorghum, compared with some 8 million acres of corn and soybeans, according to the University of Missouri Extension.
"It's kind of a forgotten crop," said Michael Aide, chairman of the Department of Agriculture at Southeast Missouri State University.
But as the USDA's projections show, that could be changing -- though no one is proclaiming this to be the dawning of a golden age of sorghum.
The crop has long been popular in Texas and Kansas -- they account for two-thirds of the nation's planted acres -- where arid and warm climates create ideal growing conditions.
But with corn prices falling to the point where some farmers will have trouble making money off their harvests, the idea of turning some acres to sorghum could be appealing -- particularly, when China is factored into the equation.
Until recently, China was a virtual nonplayer in the world of sorghum, importing just 4,000 metric tons during the 2010-2011 harvest year, according to the USDA. But during the past 12 months, that number had risen to 7 million metric tons -- with most of that coming from the United States, the world's leading sorghum producer.
That's created a demand felt across the nation, including in Chillicothe, where Beetsma said they've had no trouble finding sorghum buyers.
"Every bit of it has been sold and shipped to China," he said. "We've seen prices up to a $1 a bushel more than corn."
Experts attribute some of China's surging sorghum demand to its own internal politics, with domestic corn prices artificially inflated to boost farm incomes. The country also created a sharp drop in corn imports after it began rejecting, in 2013, grain shipments containing an unapproved biotech trait found in a new Syngenta seed. Before ultimately approving the seed, China rejected around 1 million tons of U.S. corn.
What's unclear, though, is just how long this demand from China will continue.
Florentino Lopez is executive director of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, an industry-funded organization created seven years ago to raise awareness of the crop and its uses. Among other things, the group has pushed sorghum's potential in consumer goods, including flour, bread, alcoholic beverages, syrup, pet food, brooms and building materials.
"The number of products containing sorghum -- you used to be able to count on two hands," Lopez said. "Now we add that many products every six months."
And he's optimistic about the grain's future in China, where demand for livestock feed is expected to grow.
"There's still a very big need for coarse grains in the coming years," he said. "Someone's going to need to provide that."
But are U.S. farmers ready to embrace sorghum?
The crop, it seems, isn't necessarily something that's easy to get into for farmers not currently growing it.
Beetsma of Chillicothe likes it because it costs considerably less to grow when compared to corn. Seeds are cheaper and it needs less fertilizer.
Yet there are problems with it, he said. It can be tricky to harvest. It can be tough finding grain elevators willing to take it -- a problem Beetsma sidesteps by using his own trucks to reach Kansas City.
And then there's the fact that sorghum can be unpleasant to handle.
"It's horribly itchy," Beetsma said. "You've got to stay out of it, or your eyes will swell shut."
That's among the reasons for the skepticism of Emerson Nafziger, a crop sciences professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.
It's not uncommon, he said, for talk of sorghum to surface from time to time, particularly during periods of dry weather. But whatever the advantages sorghum might offer, Nafziger argues that corn is a stronger bet for farmers in this region, where yields are among the best in the nation.
Further proof, he said, comes from this: "The guys that get out of grain sorghum very rarely get back in."