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Sorghum

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Sorghum can be used in all types of meals in all types of forms. This meal uses whole grain sorghum and sorghum syrup.
Sorghum can be used in all types of meals in all types of forms. This meal uses whole grain sorghum and sorghum syrup.

Ten years ago, sorghum, an ancient gluten-free grain, rich in health benefits, was nearly non-existent on grocery store shelves. Now, sorghum is one of the top food trends of 2017. How did this grain known more for its use as a livestock feed, come roaring into the food spotlight?

Faith Smith, consumer communications strategist for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, said sorghum, an ancient grain from Africa, has made a name for itself.

“When I first started working for the checkoff three years ago, very few people knew sorghum as a whole grain food product,” Smith said. “Now, a large majority of consumers are beginning to learn about sorghum and its many applications as a food product.”

Sorghum’s rise in popularity is largely due to an increasing consumer demand for gluten-free, ancient whole grains. Doug Bice, Sorghum Checkoff market development director, said sorghum is all of those things.

“With this movement from plant base protein that we are seeing in the country,” Bice said, “the non-GMO movement, the gluten-free movement, the whole grain movement, and ancient grain movement, all those factors lend themselves perfectly to where sorghum checks all those boxes.”

Bice said sorghum has been in the food market for decades, but has been flying below the radar. The production of food-grade sorghum represents only three percent of the overall United States sorghum market share, with traditional uses such as livestock feed, feedstock for biofuel production and international exports utilizing the majority of the crop. However, farmers are growing this crop as they receive a premium when producing food-grade sorghum. That premium has risen within the last several years as the versatile grain finds its place on consumer grocery lists.

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A strawberry and banana sorghum smoothie. Yum! Image courteous of Simply Sorghum.

Focusing on the Consumer

It is not just the whole grain and gluten-free movements that have made consumers want to try this delicious, ancient grain. The Sorghum Checkoff, a national farmer-funded organization devoted to promoting and improving the crop through research and market development, is engaging consumers to teach them more about sorghum.

Smith, whose main role within the checkoff is to expand consumer awareness of the grain, said the Sorghum Checkoff created a consumer research plan to better serve the needs of consumers interested in food-grade sorghum.

“To get to where we are today, we tested a lot of different ideas through a consumer research study,” Smith said. “We tested various messages, imagery, graphic styles and logo types. Ultimately, through that research, we were able to narrow down what was most likely going to be effective and successful.”

Using the consumer research data, Smith said the Sorghum Checkoff began developing a brand to promote food-grade sorghum through online and outreach activities. At the heart of the brand, called ‘Sorghum: Nature’s Super Grain,’ is a website that was created based on consumer’s demands for information on the product.

“We solidified that consumers needed to know the basics – what sorghum is, how they can use it and what the health benefits are,” Smith said.
The website contains a collection of sorghum-based recipes, nutritional information, tips for how to cook sorghum, and most importantly, where to buy sorghum products.

Bice added that the Sorghum Checkoff wanted its food brand to be similar to other well-known commodity checkoff-funded campaigns, such as ‘Got Milk’ or ‘Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,’ but had to find a way to do with a limited budget and staff.

However, the checkoff was able to maximize its resources and created a one-of-a-kind campaign that used industry tradeshows and expos, as well as other creative activities to inform new audiences about the benefits of sorghum.
“We had media dinners where we invited the media in to look at the different dishes we were preparing,” said Bice. “We did a number of recipe-type contests, and there are over 200 recipes [on the website] associated with sorghum. We worked very hard with our communications [department], and they did a wonderful job setting up the consumer base and the consumer facing website.”

Smith said sorghum continues to get attention from consumers and food media.

It is healthy, it is versatile, it is convenient to put into whatever dish you want. Faith Smith

“There has been a lot of push behind sorghum, so I think people are really interested in it from an ancient grain perspective and a whole grain perspective,” said Smith. “It is healthy, it is versatile, it is convenient to put into whatever dish you want. So, I think the media is truly seeing the value that sorghum has.”

In the Spotlight

In 2017, sorghum was recognized by many organizations and publications as one of the year’s food trends, including the Daily Record and the James Beard Foundation, calling sorghum the new “it grain” because of its nutritional and gluten-free attributes. Men’s Health, also recognized sorghum as a “powerhouse grain” filled with fiber and offering key minerals for bone health.

As sorghum becomes the new “it grain,” Smith, believes sorghum still has a long way to go.

“We are still climbing the mountain,” Smith said. “I think that if we keep pushing the way we are and we keep promoting sorghum’s benefits, sorghum will continue trending in popularity.”

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Try this simple sweet potato sorghum salad this fall. Courteous of Cara Harbstreet, The Street Smart Dietitian
  • Sorghum is a versatile grain as it comes in many different forms. The main forms sorghum that is sold in stores is whole grain, pearled grain, popped sorghum, and sorghum flour. Sorghum can also come in granola bars, cereals and protein powders.
  • Sorghum can be cooked as grain on a stovetop, a slow cooker, in the oven or in a pressure cooker. Sorghum is also great to precook and freeze for easy meals later on.
  • Sorghum is a gluten-free whole grain that offers nutritional benefits such as protein, iron, vitamin B6, and Magnesium while being rich in antioxidants. Sorghum also offers lots of energy, perfect for anyone trying to get through the day.
  • With 1 in 33 Americans having Celiac Disease or some type of gluten-intolerance, sorghum is the perfect substitute to certain grains.
  • Sorghum uses 1/3 less water than comparable crops, helping reduce the usage of water.

USCP and USDA-ARS Find New Traits in Sorghum

With new sorghum research, the future of sorghum has become more stable.

The United Sorghum Checkoff Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services are teaming up to find new traits to increase sorghum yields.

Justin Weinheimer, Ph.D., USCP crop improvement director, said current research is focused on advancing the crop’s productivity.

“When you look at the portfolio of research that we have conducted, it is really aiming at improving (yield) to allow the sorghum producers, particularly on the grain side, to be more productive,” Weinheimer said. “Obviously, when you ask any farmer what they want in a field of sorghum, they are going to tell you three things; they want yield, yield and yield. But the question in our research is how to address: ‘how do you get that?’”

Weinheimer said USCP invested in a five-year, $1.25 million project with the USDA-ARS in Lubbock that allows research to be conducted to identify and explore the uniquely diverse genetic traits within sorghum.

Chad Hayes, a sorghum geneticist for the USDA-ARS in Lubbock, explains one of the unique genetic traits they found within sorghum called Multiseed.
“Multiseed, what we call MSD, is a mutation within sorghum that will increase the number of seed within the sorghum head,” said Hayes. “Though the seeds are currently small, we hope that in the future MSD will increase the yields of sorghum.”

Hayes said sorghum yields have been flat for the past 20 years. However, they hope to change that soon.

“Currently we have been doing a lot of research on identifying a tolerant source within sorghum to battle the sugarcane aphid,” said Hayes. “We are testing a line from Ethiopia to find new singles lines and sugarcane tolerance. This line is photoperiod sensitive, the main source of sugarcane aphid tolerance, does not flower in Lubbock, so it continues to grow.”

Hayes said they are also conducting research on a cold tolerant line of sorghum.

“We are also working on a cold tolerant line,” Hayes said, “Normally sorghum germinates above 60F soil temperature. However, the line we are creating would be able to germinate around 56F soil temperature.”

With farmers planting later due to rains and cool soil temperatures, the USCP said that this new research along with others will be beneficial to farmers looking for higher yields.

Weinheimer said this new research will be beneficial to farmers looking for a higher yield.

“I think these are the types of technology that are going to offer some value for growers,” said Weinheimer, “Maybe not these specific ones but these types of technology are going to be something that helps growers in the field get directly more yield.”

Sorghum Shootout Shoots for 250 Bushel Goal

Sorghum bushels, reaching the goal.
Sorghum bushels, reaching the goal.

The National Sorghum Producers (NSP) and Stoller USA hope to show off sorghum’s yield potential by having growers compete in its Sorghum Shootout contest in 2017.

Whether you are just beginning in the sorghum industry or a seasoned sorghum veteran, the Sorghum Shootout is a great way to highlight the high yield potential of sorghum.

NSP External Affairs Director, Jennifer Blackburn, said NSP set a yield goal for producers.

“The Sorghum Shootout Yield contest is going to be focusing on achieving our goal of 250 bushels an acre,” Blackburn said.

With support from the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, the contest is offering prizes for winning growers. The top three contestants to place in each category of the contest will receive awards. Growers achieving the highest yields are eligible to win larger prizes. First place will receive a three-year truck lease from Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, or Toyota. Second place will receive an all-terrain vehicle, and third place will receive a riding lawn mower.

Sorghum growers from around the country have entered this year’s contest with hopes of reaching the 250-bushel goal.

 

To view the contest results, visit the website http://sorghumshootout.com/scorecards/.

Overall, this contest will be a way to promote sorghum and its potential to reach the 250-bushel mark.

For more information about the contest, please contact debral@sorghumgrowers.com.

Chromatin the Hub of Innovation

Sorghum sprouts being test agains sugar aphids.

 

Sustainability is a goal many farmers are trying to achieve, and many seed companies are trying to help. Sorghum is a dependable crop that requires fewer nutrients and less water than other crops. The population is growing and demands more food and resources with less land to produce it.

Chromatin, a sorghum seed company, has made breakthroughs in technology for the sorghum industry. With new technology, they are able to produce a sorghum product that is different than normal seed companies can provide.

Daphne Preuss, Chromatin’s CEO, has led the development of new state-of-the-art technology that has pushed sorghum breeding programs to a new level. This new innovation, called Many Chromosome Technology, allows more than one chromosome to be moved at a time. This technology allows scientists to move the more desirable genes in plants and saves plant breeders’ time and money.

In 2006, Chromatin went from the research stage to the commercial stage, trying to sell the technology it created. When the company couldn’t sell the technology to plant breeders, Chromatin decided they would partner with sorghum companies and create a new sorghum product using its technology.

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Different varieties of sorghum can grow to be over 6 feet tall.

“They needed a vehicle to sell the technology so they could sell technology through seed, not just the rights to use it,” said David Thomas, senior manager-support operations for Chromatin and owner of Sorghum Partners.

Preuss focused on sorghum because of its diversity, adaptation, low water and nutrient requirements, and ability to be customized through breeding and technology to meet a variety of needs. Chromatin’s focus is on using its technology to introduce sustainable, healthy agricultural practices while enhancing commercial value and quality of life.

Preuss went to the Sorghum Partners in New Deal, Texas, and asked to buy the company. After careful consideration, David Thomas and his partner at Sorghum Partners decided to sell the company to Chromatin.  Chromatin still sells its seed under Sorghum Partners brand.

When Chromatin bought Sorghum Partners six years ago, they slowly started moving operations from Chicago, Illinois, to New Deal, and Lubbock, Texas. Chromatin decided they needed to move their molecular team, the scientists who use the technology to breed the sorghum, to Lubbock.

“There was a time when we stood in the Lee Building, which is just a big tin shed, and thought we could build a molecular lab here,” said Scott Staggenborg, director, product portfolio and technology advancement for Chromatin.

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Young sorghum gets tested to see if they are stainable in certain conditions.

Chromatin decided they did not have the money to do it. Soon after, Texas Tech announced they were building the Innovative Hub, which Chromatin now uses as a research lab. Chromatin gets the advantage of using state-of-the-art technology, without building it.

“It’s a great idea and a great relationship for our company and us,” Staggenborg said.

Chromatin was the first company to start research in Tech’s Innovative Hub. Because they were able to use the Innovative Hub, they had access to the newest technology for their research needs. The lab was fully equipped the day Chromatin moved in, which allowed them to start research from day one.

It was very nice; we have a good relationship with Texas Tech.
Song Luo

“It was very nice; we have a good relationship with Texas Tech,” said Song Luo, Chromatin researcher.

Texas Tech also helps to hire student-help for Chromatin whenever needed. This gives Chromatin a chance to be even more involved at Texas Tech.

Chromatin also rents land from farmers to plant sorghum seed and conduct research in the field. They have several 90-acre plots in Idalou and New Deal. Renting land allows plant breeders with sorghum to actually grow the plants and study them in the field. Chromatin has greenhouses in Lubbock, where they can grow sorghum in a controlled environment instead of in the field.

The ability to grow sorghum on land that other crops couldn’t is unique to the crop. Its hardiness makes it possible to thrive where other crops fail. Sorghum is a sustainable crop that can grow well in many places.

“Sorghum can grow on 80 percent of the world’s land,” Thomas said.

It takes a third less water to grow sorghum than other crops, making it an attractive crop for many dry land farmers who don’t have the water to put on their crops.

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Sorghum in different stages being tested against sugarcane aphids.

Chromatin is strictly a sorghum seed company, and is responsible for producing many different sorghum types, includes grain sorghum, forage sorghum, Sudan grass, and food grade sorghum. They also do several crossbred sorghum plants trying to get the most desirable and sustainable traits they can. For example, Chromatin selectively breeds for certain areas that receive little rainfall.
“I have seen sorghum that is 16 feet tall, and I’ve seen sorghum that comes to my knee,” said Kerry Mayfield, forage, biomass and Sudan Breeder with Chromatin. With Texas Tech’s help Chromatin is able to produce more verities of sorghum that can be sold on a global scale.

“We are becoming a large sorghum company,” Thomas said.

Chromatin also gives Texas Tech students a chance to be apart of the research through student assistant jobs. Students are hired through the University but do research for Chromatin. This also gives students a way to learn more about sustainable crops such as sorghum.

Creating a sustainable crop for farmers to be able to farm on many different kinds of land is what Chromatin is trying to accomplish. The sorghum is bred for the certain area’s weaknesses and also strengths.

“We want to bring sophisticated technology into sorghum just as cotton, corn, and other crops have been doing for years,” Thomas said.

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Success in Sorghum

Nestled in the heart of the Texas Panhandle, a seed company has been working behind the scenes to continue making advancements in the sorghum industry.

In 1938, C.G. Richardson bought the land that would become the location of a leader in the sorghum industry. He put up wooden granaries and bought a portable cleaner in order to store the grain for his neighbors. When they were ready to get their seed, he would clean and sack it for them and charge them a cleaning and storage fee. This went on until 1953 when he dug one of the first irrigation wells in Deaf Smith County, Texas.

In 1955, Richardson Seeds had their “birth date” in the seed business. This was the first time Richardson Seeds sold a bag of seed with their own name on it.

One year later, researchers at Texas A&M University crossed male and female sorghum, creating the first hybrid.  This led to Richardson being approached by the Deaf Smith County extension agent who asked him to produce the seed, which he agreed to. This made Richardson the first person to produce a hybrid sorghum seed, which they have been doing ever since.

This led to Richardson Seeds producing A&M’s hybrid seeds until the 1980s. In the 80s state legislature passed a law requiring state universities to collect intellectual property for anything they had developed. This law put an end to almost all public breeding programs.

However, Richardson Seeds still manages sorghum hybrids.

In 1981, C.G. Richardson’s grandson, Larry Richardson, graduated college at Texas Tech University and returned home to work in the seed business. In 1982, Larry started Richardson Seed’s first breeding program while he continued his work in production.

Richardson Seeds still works exclusively with sorghum and is one of the few companies doing so.

“Sorghum is 100 percent what we are committed to as a seed crop,” Larry said, ”We’ve been doing it for over 60 years now.”

Distribution

With 50 percent of their sales being international, they are far from a small company. David Drinnon, the CFO at Richardson Seeds, said their seeds will end up pretty much anywhere sorghum can be grown.

“Whether you’re selling seed here, the Ukraine, in Russia or Mexico, they have different needs, but you hope that several of those hybrids will work in multiple locations,” Drinnon said.

Drinnon said that regardless of if they ship it direct to a location, their distributors will end up covering the majority of the countries in their area.

However, they private label for other companies, so outside of the Texas panhandle, it is unlikely to see bags of seed with the Richardson Seed label. They do not want to affect the sales of other companies, so they stay in a small area of the panhandle.

“We process and package for other companies as our primary business.” Drinnon said, ”We don’t really advertise our name a whole lot, because we want to help our customers do their job well and stay out of the way.”

Richardson Seeds is one of the largest hybrid breeding programs with a full portfolio of sorghums.

“Monsanto and Pioneer, they may do more grains, but they don’t do more in total sorghum portfolio than we do,” Richardson said.

We want to help our customers do their job well.-David Drinnon

Modern

In 2008 the United Sorghum Checkoff Program officially began and contacted Richardson seeds to restart the sorghum conversion program.

Larry said they were chosen to do the program because they were 100 percent sorghum and they already had ties to the program from their past experiences with Texas A&M.

For five years, Richardson Seeds helped to diversify the germplasm and restart the program. Over these five years, they released back 153 so anyone who has received new germplasm in the last five years got it from Richardson Seeds.

Drinnon said the sorghum conversion program was an important program for the sorghum industry.

“That program was all designed to expand the germplasm diversity for the entire sorghum industry,” Drinnon said, ”So they brought it here and we converted it to usable lines.”

At the conclusion of their involvement Richardson Seeds released the program back to A&M. They still have the ability to assist if needed, but they likely will not have to for a long time.

In 2011, Richardson Seeds fully automated their packaging lines. They were one of the first companies to do so, and it descended their need for warehouse employees from 22 to five. Larry said these five employees can produce 10,000 bags each day during the busy season.

Unlike most companies who have a “field day” for their clients, Richardson Seeds gives each customer their own day. From the middle of August until October, their facility will see more than 100 visitors. This gives the client the chance to see the facility and discuss what they need for their markets. Through doing this, Richardson Seeds and the customer create a one on one relationship that

“We actually work with the customer to build what they want,” Richardson said.

Drinnon said they often have a line of products that can fit their customer’s needs. He said these customers help to provide input into how they can improve a line.

Creating a hybrid sorghum seed is no easy task. From a blank slate to a marketable product takes seven to 10 years. With all the crosses developed, many will likely fail. Out of hundreds of hybrids, they may only have one make it. With such a diverse ecosystem around the world, finding a universal hybrid for everybody is virtually impossible.

Drinnon said that that they may have different environments, but he hopes that some hybrids have the ability to work in multiple places.

In 2009, Richardson Seeds received a major change. Drinnon said the owners were ready to retire and wanted to see some returns from the company they had worked so hard to build. They sold Richardson Seeds to the Australian based company Nufarm.

“It just kind of worked out as far as timing, but they were interested in moving into the sorghum business,” Drinnon said.

Drinnon said recording and accountability were two big changes that came with the buyout. He said instead of answering to their board of directors and they now have bosses that answer to the board of directors. He said financing is now handled outside of the United States instead of being primarily local bank financing.

A lot has changed over the 60 years Richardson Seeds has been part of the Sorghum industry and they continue to make advancements each and every day.

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