Creating Partnerships that Sustain

Small family gathering during sorghum harvest months. Hailey Gilbreath – United Sorghum Checkoff Program

The word ‘sustainability’ can mean different things to different people. In agriculture, sustainability has taken center stage when it comes to how farmers and ranchers plan to ensure the future of their livelihoods. Commodity organizations are increasingly tasked with understanding how the crops they represent can fit into the sustainability conversation.

National Sorghum Producers believes sorghum is uniquely positioned to provide farmers with a sustainable crop option. And, in September 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the organization an opportunity to enhance the sustainability practices of sorghum.

NSP’s Partnerships

NSP was awarded a $65 million, five-year grant from the USDA through its new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program to invest in creating a pathway for the impact of all production practices to be “quantified, tracked and verified” with the intent to encourage incorporating other tools into rotations while creating continuous environmental improvement throughout the next decade.

Texas Tech University received $1.6 million from NSP and received their own $5 million grant through the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program to do research on sorghum partnering with Texas Alliance for Water Conservation. This grant is more research oriented. Therefore, TAWC is focusing on the water sustainability aspect and filling out the best practices for using sorghum to reduce the water footprint and reduce water usage.

Overall, they will be researching the best ways to rotate crops to optimize water use and water efficiency in a combined 67% of the sorghum farmland in states such as New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. With NSP’s grant and their $5 million grant, Texas Tech received a total of $6.6 million from the USDA through the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program.

Duff’s Involvement with NSP

John Duff worked for NSP and the United Sorghum Checkoff Program for 10 years before starting his own consulting company, Serō Ag Strategies. Duff served as a strategy consultant for NSP during the grant application process.

“The project will provide technical and financial assistance to producers to implement climate-smart production practices on a voluntary basis,” Duff said.

The grant will also assist NSP as it pilots innovative and cost-effective methods for quantification, monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas benefits and developing markets.

NSP was one of 70 applicants that were awarded out of the 1,000 applications for the federal agency’s pilot projects that totaled $2.8 billion in funding.

Known for its drought and heat tolerance, Duff said sorghum is viable crop option for areas like the High Plains where weather can be harsh and unpredictable. Sorghum has many end-uses including livestock feed, biofuel production, and pet food. It has even gained notoriety in recent years in the human food market as a gluten-free grain option. 

Duff, who grew up on a farm in Levelland, Texas, said because farmers do not have to plow their fields as much while growing sorghum, which limits soil erosion. Sorghum is also exceptional at reducing greenhouse gas emissions when used as a cover crop or when used in no-till production.

Through the $65 million federal grant, NSP is ensuring legislators have the best information on sorghum available to them while making farm policy decisions.

“Consumers are demanding some action in sustainability,” Duff said. “You have got to have a way to get the information about the sustainability practices farmers are doing to that ultimate end-user.”

Sustainability is a fascinating area because it is an intersection of half a dozen different things.

John Duff

Farmer Compensation

Duff says the overall goal of the grant is to ensure farmers are compensated for the sustainability practices they are performing. NSP is striving towards promoting sorghum as “the resource-conserving crop” since sustainability is a leading topic on the farm and Capitol Hill.

An aspect of getting the information to the consumer which Duff said is difficult is being able to encourage farmers to keep records of what practices they are doing. His goal is for farmers to be able to see the value of keeping those records and get them compensated.

“Streamlining all that, doing that turnkey and putting it in a one stop shop for the farmer is going to be the ultimate goal of time,” Duff said.

On the farmer side of the grant, NSP is providing a menu of practices for farmers to perform. These practices are no till or less plowing overall which means energy is being conserved. A second practice which can be performed is precision irrigation, which conserves water. Lastly, precision fertilizing which prevents upstream emissions, and will prevent the fertilizers from leaching and running off downstream.

“Farmers get to pick from that menu of practices, and we call that at every step in the process like how much they make and how much fertilizer they put down and other things like that,” Duff said. “We will compensate the farmer for doing that practice and providing us with the data.”

The data collected is if they used herbicides and pesticides or not, and if irrigation was used and the till practices performed. Once the farmer agrees to perform in the research, they are given a record book to track the production process of their sorghum crop. At the end of the growing season, the farmer then gives the record book back to NSP. After ensuring the farmer accurately recorded their data, the farmer is compensated. That data will then be pushed out into the supply sorghum supply chain where NSP can say this sorghum crop was produced sustainably.

“Everybody wants sustainability now,” Duff said. “The fact is the U.S. farmer can provide sustainability more than better than any other farmer. Agriculture is the only business that sequesters carbon in the normal course of business operations.”

What Happens with the Research?

The research provided is then gathered to present sorghum’s sustainable qualities and how they make a positive impact to climate priorities in markets and policies. By analyzing the sorghum industry yearly, this creates data to continually improve the industry. Once the data is put together, this is then presented at Capitol Hill to ensure the farmers are getting the assistance they need on the farm.

The grant gave NSP the opportunity to collaborate with institutions focused on sustainability research. NSP, in turn, funded $1.6 millions to Texas Tech University’s Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources to perform research on sorghum.

At Texas Tech, Krishna Jagadish, Ph.D. and Haydee Laza, Ph.D. will be working with Texas A&M University, Kansas State University, and the USDA to enhance sorghum’s climate-smart characteristics like farming practices and carbon emissions. Texas Tech will also be performing research in collaboration with the Texas Alliance Water Conservation (TAWC) to focus on sorghum’s water-saving potential.

Jagadish, a professor and Thorton Distinguished Chair in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, is the lead researcher of NSP’s funded project at Texas Tech and coordinator for TAWC. He will data from producer record books which will help the research team understand producers’ specific production practices during the growing season. TAWC will use the record book date along with the data they have collected over the past 18 years to further analyze practices and technology needs.

Jagadish said TAWC is focused developing new tools to enhance water conservation and improve soil health.

“If an industry comes up with something we can test, we can see if it is working or not,” he said. “This is very resourceful and efficient for the industry.”

The rays of the sun peak through sorghum crops displaying their natural red and orange vibrance. Hailey Gilbreath – United Sorghum Checkoff Program

Small Steps Lead to Milestones

Jagadish said the partnership with TAWC and NSP through the grant is an advantage for the sorghum industry because it saves money. They can test technology from private industry to see if it will work or needs modifications and then TAWC can present unbiased results to producers.

“It is such a complex system, “he said. “Every producer is different. That is why it is very, very important that you treat every producer case-by-case because you cannot have a solution which could work. You might be needing something more generic for everyone.”

Jagadish mentions how there will be many small steps in reaching the main vision that he has for the program. There will be small grants that come along, which Jagadish says will be used to keep supplementing to reach the point of sorghum sustainability. Each producer performs their own practices, so Jagadish wants to ensure they cater to everyone to understand everyone’s decision-making while producing their crop.

“These are small grants we will use to reach that point, which some will happen in small steps and others could be a quantum leap,” Jagadish said. “Sometimes you never know because most discoveries are made by accident.”

Jagadish said sorghum is a water-conserving crop and can be a sustainable option in an area like the South Plains that relies on the declining Ogallala Aquifer.

“If you start growing a lot of sorghum here in the region as a good rotation crop to cotton, that will give a little bit of a breather for the Ogallala Aquifer,” Jagadish said. “In the overall grand scheme of things having sorghum in the rotation gives you an alternative, and you still get the yield.”

Rick Kellison, who is the project director of TAWC, said cotton and sorghum rotation can be beneficial for cotton yields overall. Growing sorghum will give the soil a break since there is little biomass that goes back into the soil behind a cotton crop.

“Those are not just the value of the sorghum itself, but it is what it [sorghum] contributes to soil health and in water holding capacity and those type of things that then are positive,” Kellison said, “Particularly for cotton.”

Carbon Credits

Jagadish said farmers can also earn money from carbon credits, which add value to growing sorghum while conserving water.

“At the end of the day, it is a win-win scenario,” Jagadish said. “The producer wants to see what the positive and the negatives are because if it does not benefit them, they will see no point.”

By showing the producer the positives of rotating sorghum with cotton they will receive a carbon credit premium paid back to them. This then turns the negative into a positive which will show the producer the value of adopting the rotational practice of sorghum with cotton.

According to Carbon Trust, which is a company that provides solutions to the climate crisis, one carbon credit is equal to one ton of carbon dioxide that has been removed from the atmosphere. Once this reduction has been certified under the internationally recognized standard of Publicly Available Specification, which is 2,060 PAS, the producer is compensated for each carbon credit earned. PAS was developed by the British Standards Institution in 2008 which sets out the requirements for quantifying, reducing and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.

Gold Standard is a company that promotes reduced carbon emissions. In 2015, they found that the estimated total cost of every ton of carbon dioxide emitted sacrifices between $11 to $212 in negative social impacts and environmental degradation.

Cotton has a higher carbon footprint than sorghum, so by giving the farmers carbon credit compensation this will promote better farming practices, such as rotating cotton and sorghum.

“The producers who are growing more sorghum are more climate-smart, because then they are using less energy and putting out fewer greenhouse gases,” Jagadish said.

Small family gathering during sorghum harvest months. Hailey Gilbreath – United Sorghum Checkoff Program 

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the gap between research and the producers is another aspect of the grant. Each year, TAWC has a field day where they can spread awareness about water sustainability and the research they are performing.

Samantha Borgstedt, who is the communications and outreach director for TAWC, puts on events throughout the year to spread awareness. They host events like grower meetings, field walks and their biggest event, which is Water College which takes place each January.

“Those are our main events and our main way of getting the message out,” Borgstedt said. “We also send out quarterly newsletters and our management team does year-round presentations at grower meeting conferences.”

Through the field walks, Water College and newsletters, they can communicate the new practices and new technologies they have found through their research. Jagadish discusses about being able to demonstrate how the new tools and how technologies function.

“If there is some technology that is on the scientific side of things, they [producers] would want to know how it actually works and doesn’t work,” Jagadish said. “Maybe we won’t have the answers them, but at least we know what the questions are.”

It is Sorghum’s Time

Duff said the partnership between NSP and Texas Tech has played an important role in the grant process.

“It’s like an organic growth of an ecosystem devoted to helping businesses start up and roll out good technology for farmers,” Duff said, who graduated from Texas Tech in 2012 with a degree in agricultural and applied economics and again in 2021 with an MBA in business administration. “Tech is playing a positive role in helping move things forward for the sorghum industry.”

Duff said the collaborative partnerships between NSP, Texas Tech and TAWC will help make sorghum a significant sustainable crop.

“Sorghum is an ancient grain,” Duff said. “It’s the time. It’s sorghum’s time, and we’re really shining.”