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Grain sorghum mounts marketplace comeback

The ancient grain is trending with consumers; check out these opportunities for your farm.

Mindy Ward, Editor, Missouri Ruralist

April 26, 2023

4 Min Read
Missouri sorghum grower Ethan Miller
FARM FOCUS: Missouri sorghum grower Ethan Miller spends time promoting his crop at Commodity Classic and all year. The United Sorghum Checkoff Program board member says more farmers need to look at raising this crop because market demand is strong. Photos by Mindy Ward

Gerber toddler snacks have a picture of grain sorghum on the package, a first for this old crop.

There is no denying, U.S. grain sorghum production is down from highs of 17 million acres in the 1980s to 6.3 million acres in 2022, according to the USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demands Estimate report. Farmers are working to reverse the trend, as consumers push this ancient grain to mainstream food status.

Ethan Miller farms with his father in central Missouri’s corn country, but finds his fields filled with more grain sorghum. Consumer choices and market opportunities drive the fifth-generation farmer’s planting decisions.

Miller serves on the United Sorghum Checkoff Program board, promoting the crop to fellow farmers, industry executives and international buyers.

Grain sorghum is versatile. It is a non-GMO crop used as:

  • grain for livestock

  • cover crops

  • biomass

  • biofuel

  • food grade

  • pet food

The Millers raise grain sorghum primarily as a cover crop and forage crop, baling it for cattle feed, but Miller says there are broad uses of this crop across a variety of industry sectors.

“Demand is there for grain sorghum. Consumers want this crop. It's non-GMO, gluten free, low glycemic index, good source of protein, antioxidants higher than blueberries and some pomegranate. We just have a lot of value in this crop to push. And I think we're just letting it take us where it goes.” — Ethan Miller

Leading a movement

Norma Ritz Johnson is a pet parent. “I admit it, I pay closer attention to what I feed my pets than myself,” she says. “I read their labels.”

As United Sorghum Checkoff Program executive director, Johnson says consumers can find “sorghum” in pet food ingredient lists and trust it. “While we still have boutique pet food brands, there is a push in mainstream brands to include sorghum on the label,” she says. “There are 170 premium or super premium pet foods that now include sorghum.”

The checkoff puts grain sorghum in consumers’ view with money from every bushel sold going to research and promotion. When it comes to commodity checkoffs — some date back to 1930s, most in the 1990s — grain sorghum is young.

“July will be the 15th anniversary of when the first grain sorghum assessments were collected on the national level,” Johnson says. “We’ve made great strides for our age, but the board is focused on what it can accomplish for the sorghum industry in the future. I think the best is yet to come.”

Selling sorghum

Miller and Johnson outlined key markets for farmers. They include:

Export. There is strong demand for grain sorghum from China and Mexico. Miller says the checkoff is working in Vietnam, India, Africa and Europe to develop more market opportunities.

Specialty feed. Non-GMO livestock or poultry feed contracts are available, but hard to find, as farmers keep a tight lid on buyers and price. “They receive premiums on those contracts,” Miller explains. “It is lucrative if you can lock one down.”

Climate-Smart crop. “From a sorghum standpoint,” Johnson says, “we’ve been sustainable before it was cool.” Farmers tapping into these new programs while capitalizing on other value-added markets may be able to move the needle in terms of production acres.

Food grade. Growing interest by consumers in ancient grains — those crops are largely unchanged — such as quinoa, wild rice and sorghum will increase demand. Current estimates of $457.35 million globally are projected to expand to $6.3 billion by 2027, according to Market Data Forecast.

Alternative uses. Sorghum may be the home insulation of the future. Texas researchers created plasticized kernels, such as packing peanuts. “It has a high R value, very low cost and it's natural,” Miller says. Plus, degradation is less than synthetic fiberglass.

As more companies, like Gerber, continue to embrace all the values of this ancient grain, Johnson says, farmers will produce it. “From farmers to consumers,” Miller adds, “excitement is building around grain sorghum.”

About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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