Sorghum Making Comeback to Rivers Region

Feb 8, 2013

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Click here to download the Mp3.

When most people think of sorghum they think of sorghum molasses, a contemporary of modern day maple syrup. But recent breakthroughs are changing sorghum’s role as a pancake sweetener.

Calloway County Farmer Trip Furches leans forward in his office chair as he explains why last year was the first time he planted energy sorghum and sweet sorghum.

“A lot of the people around in the community they asked ‘What is that crop you’re trying to raise there?,’” Furches said. “I mean it’s easy to plant. It requires a little more tillage. It doesn’t take hardly as much fertilizer as corn.”

But, until now farmers like Furches  haven’t invested in a crop that has a very limited market. But when bio-fuel research officials approached Furches last year and paid a stipend to set aside a few acres of land to plant a small sorghum crop he was hesitant, but optimistic.

Pete Nelson is director of business development with the non-profit Memphis Bioworks  Nelson’s company looks for new ways to utilize already existing crops likesorghum. In this case he wants to use sorghum as a substitute for corn in the ethanol industry. Now he’s teaming up with farmers like Furches through a network of non-profits and Murray State University for sorghums trial testing.

“And out of all our cumulative work over the last 4 years we’ve identified sweet sorghum as one of the most promising crops for the region," Nelson said. “What we did starting in 2009 was look at how to grow the crop, harvest the crop, process the crop and then develop a number of downstream products and processes with the raw materials from sweet sorghum.”

So far the trial testing for the crop has been successful, at least in the field. Which prompts other industries to eye sorghum. 

Tony Brannon is dean of Murray State’s Hutson School of Agriculture. He wants to see sorghum become a staple biofuel in the region. Biofuels are an alternative energy product derived from crop leftovers, such as corn stalks, that can be used to generate electricity.

“All of them have at the highest level, the opportunity to make biofuels, to make plastics, to make a lot of things we presently make out of petroleum," Brannon said. “At the lowest level of their input their actually typically forage type crops. Switch grass is a warm season grass; it can be used to feed the livestock when cut at the appropriate height. The same goes for energy sorghum and to certain extent even with sweet sorghum.”

So far everything seems to be going well for the sorghum crop initiative. Furches says it was even able to withstand this past summer’s long drought.

But there are still a few roadblocks in the way of sorghum becoming a viable crop for farmers. One is most farmers aren’t able to harvest it because Sorghum has to be collected and packaged with equipment most farmers don’t own. The other is the current lack of a market for sorghum based ethanol. So, farmers are wary about jumping on a bandwagon.

But according to Pete Nelson of Memphis Bioworks the future of sorghum may not look too different from what happened with another crop in the past century. 

“If you think about corn in the 1930’s and 1940’s it was about 30 to 40 bushels an acre," Nelson said. "And then we started developing hybrid technology and some of the genetics. You know you can get crop yields for corn as high as 300 bushels an acre. We’re right at the beginning of that for sorghum.”

As for Farmer Trip Furches, he says he would be willing to grow the crop again so long as there is a market and someone willing to pay.