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New year offers unprecedented opportunities for sorghum

U.S. Grains Council sorghum field
Sorghum Focus: Many farmers have already sold sorghum for delivery after the 2021 harvest.

I ended my last column of 2019 by stating that U.S. agriculture had a lot to look forward to in 2020, and that I couldn’t wait to see what the year would bring. On the surface, I seem to have missed the mark significantly. However, I stand by what I said about agriculture and opportunities.

Sure, 2020 was incredibly challenging given the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone knows someone who has been affected, and the year will go down as one of the most tragic in U.S. history. But for sorghum, 2020 saw important milestones reached.

You’ve almost certainly seen the headlines: China is buying U.S. sorghum at a breakneck pace, and many sorghum farmers have had the chance to sell at prices not seen in six years. What’s more, many farmers have already sold sorghum for delivery after harvest in 2021. That’s never happened before — and not because farmers haven’t taken opportunities.

Rather, those opportunities have never existed before now. Even in 2015, when China was buying three out of every four bushels of sorghum produced in the U.S., we never saw bids for a crop that wouldn’t be planted for another six months. We’re in truly uncharted waters.

Why are we seeing this demand? As I’ve written about in previous columns, China’s demand is staggering. About 70 percent of the country’s pigs died in the swine fever outbreak, and the rebuild currently occurring is creating a tremendous amount of demand for feed grain.

Sure, the Phase 1 trade deal is having an impact, but the country’s corn stockpile has dwindled significantly over the past three years. And with livestock needs coupled with the pent-up demand of an increasingly affluent population emerging from a pandemic, 2020 has set the stage for fireworks on a global scale.

This scenario will play out in many other countries and regions over the next few decades as well. From India to Nigeria, there is a world of opportunity for U.S. sorghum farmers and U.S. agriculture overall.

In the short term, there are finally reasons to be bullish. Chinese purchases of sorghum and other crops are at the top of the list, but drought conditions have set in in South America and beyond, and this situation coupled with the already short supply of soybeans could trigger a significant move upward in the prices for all agricultural commodities.

I’m certainly not telling anyone to bet the farm on a run back to $6 corn, but there are more reasons for optimism going into 2021 than there have been in a long time.

Aside from renewed hope in better prices, 2020 saw continued progress in herbicide-tolerant technology development, and we remain hopeful that the next few years will see Inzen, Igrowth and Double Team sorghum finally reach farmers’ fields.

As yield records fall at an increasingly rapid pace, it’s clear availability of these technologies couldn’t have come at a better time. In mid-December, National Sorghum Producers wrapped up its 35th annual sorghum yield contest by announcing a new dryland sorghum yield record set by Ella Johnston of McConnellsburg, Pa.

The yield of 245.86 bushels per acre was the first dryland yield above 240 bushels and was only 3.46 bushels below the highest sorghum yield ever recorded. Herbicide-tolerant technology is one more tool to help make way for more records like Ella’s.

Just like in 2019, we have a lot going for us as we say goodbye to 2020 and ring in 2021. Here’s to a great year! I know our farmers will make us proud.

Duff is executive vice president for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at john@sorghumgrowers.com or on Twitter @sorghumduff.

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