Thinking Outside of the (VR) Box

Sorghum fields are shown through virtual reality VR technology captured 360-degree views of the 2020 sorghum crop’s above-average quality.

The early morning sun glints off the waist-high, harvest-ready sorghum heads. Colossal wind turbines rise above the field, and a double rainbow extends into an almost perfect blue sky following a morning thunderstorm on the Texas Coastal Bend. You reach out to touch the sorghum head in front of you, and then you remember: This is not real.

Rather than standing in a Texas sorghum field, your feet are planted in a Beijing boardroom, a meeting space in Morocco, or an office in Japan. This is the power of virtual reality – a powerful tool the United Sorghum Checkoff Program chose to harness in 2020.

The Value of Export Relationships

In the sorghum industry, international markets constitute an overwhelmingly significant portion of U.S. sorghum growers’ profit. As the world’s largest producer and exporter of grain sorghum, the U.S. exported approximately $1.36 billion worth of sorghum in 2020 alone.

Reece Cannady, manager of global trade for the U.S. Grains Council, said while exports are important to all U.S. commodities, sorghum stands out for its reliance on international buyers.

“[Export markets] are the bread and butter,” Cannady said.

Farmers visit with international buyers
When sorghum producers have the opportunity to directly communicate their expertise to buyers, a foundation of trust is built.

Because exports play such a vital role, the Sorghum Checkoff has long partnered with USGC to host trade team visits, inviting international buyers to see the U.S. sorghum industry firsthand. Over the years, hundreds have traveled from overseas to learn more about what sets U.S. sorghum apart.

Clint White, communications director for the Sorghum Checkoff, said they typically invite buyers to visit sorghum growing areas during the summer to meet with farmers, see their operations, and observe the crop’s quality.

“They’re making sure we are growing a really good harvest and the crop is coming along as well as we would like,” White said, “so as they start to make big purchases, they know that commitment can be made.”

While trade team visits have proven invaluable in terms of market expansion, an even greater value has been found in the relationships that form through these interactions between international buyers and domestic producers.

“Ultimately, [buyers] don’t want to hear from the checkoff,” White said. “They want to hear from the actual producers; what their accomplishments are, what they had to battle through as far as drought or lack of water, or whatever it was that season.”

Trade team visits bolster international buyers’ confidence in the ability of U.S. producers to overcome challenges. However, in 2020, an unimaginable obstacle arose, restricting the opportunity for these producer-consumer connections to form.

Unique Challenges & Solutions

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 brought all travel to a screeching halt. While sorghum producers continued to progress toward the 2020 harvest, the Sorghum Checkoff was forced to evaluate how this would affect international market development efforts.

Cannady said the industry’s international design means representatives are constantly traveling to meet with current and potential buyers around the world. For the first two months of the pandemic, no one was quite certain how to proceed with these interactions amid tight travel restrictions.

“We were kind of sitting on our hands from March to May,” Cannady said. “But I think you have to do something. You have to continue to keep the brand in front of people and keep people thinking about [products of] U.S. origin – particularly U.S. sorghum.”

While the industry was eager to get the ball rolling and return to buyers’ radars, it was clear trade team visits would not be taking place in 2020. Everyone was asking the same question: how can the sorghum industry continue to connect with international buyers and showcase the U.S. sorghum crop?

Rather than bring international buyers to U.S. sorghum fields, White said the Sorghum Checkoff felt they needed a creative way to take U.S. sorghum fields to them. Traditional video was a proposed option, however, they needed something that would have a bigger impact.

Fifth-generation Kansas farmer and National Sorghum Producers board member Doug Keesling had a solution. As a managing partner at XR Global Consulting, a firm specializing in virtual reality, Keesling presented the idea of conducting VR field tours in place of trade visits. International buyers could slip on a headset from anywhere and be immediately transported to a sorghum field where they could physically see the harvest, hear from the farmer, and ultimately, adopt a belief in the viability of the U.S. sorghum crop.

“There’s not anyone in the world that does it better than we do.

Creating the VR Experience

These VR headsets were exactly the kind of solution the Sorghum Checkoff and USGC had been seeking. With XR Global’s expertise and equipment enabling the 360-degree, three-dimensional video, Team Sorghum began the production process, visiting several farms in Kansas and Texas to capture footage.

One producer featured was fourth-generation Nueces County, Texas, farmer and delegate for the Texas Grain Sorghum Producers Association, Jon Gwynn. Gwynn said it is critical for international buyers to not only see the sorghum they are buying, but also hear directly from the farmer.

“We agreed to get on camera and talk about it because we could sense that there would be value there,” Gwynn said. “Anytime I can be a part of trying to make our product look better, that is a win.”

In the videos, Gwynn and several other featured farmers had the opportunity to explain their personal production backgrounds, 2020 growing conditions, benefits of growing sorghum, and the overall process from seed selection to harvest.

“There’s not anyone in the world that does it any better than we do,” Gwynn said. “But [buyers] still want to know what they are buying and what the product looks like.”

The final VR videos showcase harvest in South Texas and Kansas through producer interviews and field footage highlighting the ability of U.S. sorghum growers to deliver a high-quality, high-yield product.

Is VR Here to Stay?

The 70 VR headsets, loaded with video from U.S. sorghum fields, were shipped to 10 different countries and elicited a remarkably positive response among recipients representing various export markets.

Despite the success of this effort in continuing engagement with these international buyers, White said nothing virtual can replace the experience of standing in a sorghum field face-to-face with farmers and industry representatives.

“There are just relationships that are built and things that are done that you can’t experience over a virtual headset,” White said. “But for right now – as long as the time is the way it is – we will continue to do these videos and try to engage with them.”

The Sorghum Checkoff continues to seek ways to connect international buyers to U.S. sorghum. If seeing is believing, they hope to continue promoting the belief in the superiority of U.S. sorghum by providing buyers with opportunities to see their product – whether that be traditionally or virtually.

“As we look at what we are doing, we are going to continue to try to be innovative and ahead of the curve,” White said. “We will continue to look forward and hopefully use some of this technology to keep us moving.”