An Ancient Grain Made New Again: How Sorghum Could Help U.S. Farms Adapt to Climate Change | Civil Eats

An Ancient Grain Made New Again: How Sorghum Could Help U.S. Farms Adapt to Climate Change

Sorghum—popular among young, BIPOC, and under-resourced farmers—has extra long roots that allow it to withstand drought and sequester greenhouse gasses.

A USDA scientist examines sorghum plants. (USDA photo by Peggy Greb)

A USDA scientist examines sorghum plants. (USDA photo by Peggy Greb)

Last year’s drought took a severe toll on Zack Rendel’s farm. Like many of the neighboring farms in his northeast corner of Oklahoma, his corn crop practically shriveled up due to the lack of moisture. During a normal year, he typically harvests about 150 bushels per acre of corn. Last year, he averaged only 22 per acre. His soybean and wheat crops were also impacted.

But there was one crop that suffered less.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of rain to make a good yield for the sorghum crop,” said Rendel, who plants about 1,000 acres of grain sorghum each year on his 5,000-acre farm. While he did lose some of his grain sorghum, or milo, to the drought, the loss was minimal compared to corn. “[Sorghum] helps offset our risk,” he said.

“Sorghum was relatively cheap to put in the ground, it had a very good yield to it, and it could withstand some hot, dry summers.”

Farmers in drought-prone areas are increasingly relying on crops that require less water to help them adapt to the effects of climate change. The Great Plains is currently facing exceptional drought, and agricultural hub states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma are dealing with long-term consequences. Sorghum is looking especially appealing as a solution.

Rendel, a sixth-generation farmer, said sorghum has a long history on his land, dating all the way back to his great-great-grandfather’s time. He is a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and said his predecessors primarily planted sorghum for their own subsistence.

“Back then, everybody had a farm. You had to grow food for your family. Sorghum was relatively cheap to put in the ground, it had a very good yield to it, and it could withstand some hot, dry summers,” Rendel said.

As those hot, dry summers become the norm, Rendel can’t rely on Mother Nature to consistently irrigate his crops.

“[Rain] seems to come either all at once or at the absolute wrong time of the year. So that’s where sorghum begins to fit into our operation very well,” he said.

Sorghum has multiple properties that make it drought tolerant. The leaves and stems of some sorghum varieties are coated in a waxy substance, an adaptation to low-moisture landscapes. It also has uniquely deep roots that can stretch up to 2.5 meters underground.

“It has a deep and fibrous root structure that really digs down to get that water,” said Adam York, sustainability director for National Sorghum Producers (NSP), which recently secured a $65 million Climate-Smart Commodities grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to increase production and develop the sorghum marketplace. According to York, sorghum’s robust root system also gives it a Kernza-like ability to store more carbon deep in the soil than the average plant.

However, sorghum in the U.S. is primarily turned into ethanol fuel and livestock feed—two of the most fossil-fuel intensive agricultural products.

“If we grow double the acres of sorghum in America to feed more livestock, there is no way that is a climate-friendly approach,” said Silvia Secchi, a sustainability professor at the University of Iowa. While she supports the expansion of sorghum production in the U.S., Secchi said there has to be a systematic approach to ensure it has a net positive climate impact.

“Are we producing sorghum in systems that reduce overall fossil-fuel use? And are we then using it to promote a food system that is lower in carbon emissions?” she asked.

Animal agriculture contributes a significant amount of global greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, corn ethanol—which dominates the biofuel industry—is more emissions-intensive than traditional gasoline, and, furthermore, promoting biofuels ultimately delays the electrification of the U.S. transportation system, Secchi argued.

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Last year, NSP signed a letter to Congress expressing support for year-round E15—gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol that has limited availability during the summer months because it worsens air quality. NSP also plans to use a significant portion of its USDA Climate-Smart Commodities grant to bolster the biofuels market.

Sorghum requires less fertilizer than corn (resulting in fewer emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide), and there is some evidence that suggests the production of sorghum ethanol might result in fewer overall emissions, but further research is currently underway at Kansas State University.

“They knew that once the sorghum is milled, it’s a sweetener, a seed, a feed, and it’s got multiple resources that would help a household.”

York said sorghum’s role lies more on the adaptation versus the mitigation side of climate change.

“It’s an improvement journey, right?” he said. “Certainly, technology today has made agriculture more climate resilient than where we were yesterday, and I think sorghum has a key and positive story to play in that,” he said.

Sorghum’s African Roots

Sorghum is a truly ancient grain, with records of production dating way back to 8,000 B.C. The grain originates from northeastern Africa and remains a staple crop in many semi-arid African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mozambique. It’s also grown and consumed in India and some East Asian countries.

Unlike the U.S., however, most African and Asian countries use sorghum as food. In fact, more than 500 million people in 30 countries consume sorghum, and the crop is the fifth most important cereal grain in the world. In Ethiopia, for example, it’s used in staple foods including injera, a fermented, spongy flatbread.

Martha Mamo, agronomy and horticulture department head at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has done extensive research on sorghum production in Africa. Most sorghum producers there operate small-scale farms on just a few acres of land, she said, and sorghum is an ideal crop for them. It’s an especially valuable crop as the Horn of Africa is currently experiencing its worst drought on record, causing mass food shortages and exacerbating famine.

“When I think about the many farmers that I have interacted with in Ethiopia, they always think about risk aversion,” said Mamo, who believes the U.S. could learn a thing or two from African agricultural regions. “It could be a [farm] saving crop,” she added.

Diversify the Farm, Diversify the Farmers

Rendel calls sorghum the “red-headed stepchild” of commodity crops. “It’s like, yeah, it’s there. Nobody likes it, though, because it’s itchy at harvest time.” (The plants release small particles that can irritate farmers’ skin when they go through a combine.) Beyond that short-term challenge, however, Rendel said sorghum may be best for adventurous farmers who are willing to experiment.

And yet, experimenting with sorghum is fairly low risk. In addition to needing less fertilizer, it’s less likely to require large acreage and expensive machinery than corn and soy, making it popular among beginning farmers and farmers of color, who often have fewer resources to work with.

On average, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) landowners operate significantly smaller operations than white landowners, and many BIPOC farmers rent or lease their land. Because a farm’s acreage largely determines what it grows, cash crops with a high upfront cost often make less sense for small-scale farmers.

“To grow mainstream cash crops like corn and soybeans, you have to have the know-how. You have to have a large enough size to really compete and thrive,” said Mamo. Smaller farmers often lack land and resources, she said, making sorghum an easier choice.

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It’s no accident that sorghum is particularly popular among both Indigenous and Black farmers. “Our Indigenous brothers and sisters are the ones that have helped us survive from day one,” said JohnElla Holmes, executive director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association. “They knew that once the sorghum is milled, it’s a sweetener, a seed, a feed, and it’s got multiple resources that would help a household. I think that was one of the most important reasons it became an important crop for Black farmers.”

It’s also possible there are simply more BIPOC farmers in drought-prone regions due to racist land giveaways in the 19th century, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which overwhelmingly favored white farmers and left some Black farmers with marginal land.

“Even though sorghum is an ancient grain, it’s gained more traction lately and has a huge opportunity to be a bigger part of the puzzle.”

The Trouble With Markets

Most Americans have never eaten a baked good made with sorghum flour or a steaming bowl of sorghum breakfast porridge. That’s because sorghum lacks a robust consumer market in the U.S. That lack of a market is why sorghum production is much lower than corn, soy, and wheat; there were around 6 million acres harvested in the U.S. in 2021, compared to 84 million acres of corn and 86 million acres of soybeans.

In fact, sorghum production in the U.S. has fallen over the past decade, raising questions about its domestic market viability. But some foresee that trend reversing as the climate continues to dry out in certain agricultural regions.

NSP is working on expanding the market, according to York. The USDA recently added sorghum to its Food Buying Guide, which schools across the country use to plan their meals. It’s being brewed into gluten-free beer ranging from Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge to craft brews like Bard’s. There are a number of sorghum flour mills that see consumer potential in gluten-free and non-GMO markets. And York sees potential in younger generations that are making increasingly climate-conscious decisions.

“Whether that be greenhouse gases, water, or, importantly, biodiversity . . . they could be looking to sorghum as one of those products that has the metrics and the story to tell behind it,” said York.

Verity Ulibarri, a sorghum grower in New Mexico, agrees its future is bright. “Even though sorghum is an ancient grain, it’s gained more traction lately and has a huge opportunity to be a bigger part of the puzzle,” she said.

As drought conditions worsen on her small farm, Ulibarri thinks sorghum could eventually take center stage, rather than acting in a supporting role for other crops. “I see it not just as a substitute option, but a primary option in certain areas,” she added.

Dana Cronin is an independent audio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. She has covered agriculture and environmental issues for Illinois Public Media and Harvest Public Media, a Midwest reporting collaborative focused on food and agriculture. Her work has been regularly featured on national broadcasts, including NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, PBS Newshour and Science Friday. Read more >

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