COVID-19 changed everything. From the ways in which we connect, to how much time we spend at the office, to our relationships with various institutions, the world may never be the same. In addition to these changes, there have also been other less expected shifts. And some have created additional opportunities for sorghum farmers.
For example, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 12.6 million families in the U.S. alone welcomed a new pet in the aftermath of the pandemic. The market to supply these companion animals with nutritious food was already booming, so this change simply added fuel to the fire.
A pet in every home
The size of this market is staggering. Before the pandemic, U.S. families counted among their members almost 200 million cats and dogs — one pet for every two people in the U.S. The numbers are equally impressive globally. Estimates vary, but most peg the global pet population at upward of a billion animals. And, like their upright companions, pets’ diets improve every year as well. We talk a lot about dietary improvement in the developing world, but we often forget that the same phenomenon is occurring among the cat and dog populations in those countries, too. Furthermore, in developed countries, many companion animals’ palates are now more complex than their owners’ palates!
What do these markets mean to U.S. agriculture? And specifically, what do they mean to sorghum farmers? In pure volume terms, these markets are extremely important. While completely grain-free pet foods and pet foods excluding certain grains get all the headlines, the bigger trend in this market is toward natural, plant-based ingredients. And the reality is, there's no better way to achieve these standards and meet companion animal nutritional requirements than with grains. (In fact, grains are already the most common ingredients, contrary to the headlines.) Fortunately, if it's an ancient grain, the demand is even higher, so sorghum is in the driver’s seat in many segments of the market.
APPA estimates sales of food and treats to be $42 billion in the U.S. alone, and this amount includes products using upwards of 100 million bushels of grain. By comparison, USDA is currently projecting 2021 sorghum production will reach almost 400 million bushels. Clearly, the demand from companion animal food producers — both the reality today and the potential tomorrow — makes efforts to grow this market well worth the resources.
Beyond volume, pet food represents an important opportunity for sorghum farmers to sell their product higher in the value chain. All markets move toward commoditization over time, and this market is no exception. In fact, the market to supply companion animals already looks and behaves much like other commodity markets. However, given the value the ultimate consumer places on the product, the value the farmer can capture is often much higher than that of typical commodity markets. Thus, supplying America’s nearly 200 million cats and dogs is the perfect first step for farmers looking to move away from commodity production and toward specialty production over time.
The nuances of this important market are too numerous to completely cover here. From regional differences, to quality characteristics, to sustainability, farmers interested in supplying it can go as far into the weeds as they desire. Or, they can stay at a high-level and concentrate on providing a consistent supply to the many volume-based producers. It’s their choice — but as with companion animals themselves, there’s something for everyone!
Duff is executive vice president for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @sorghumduff.