Sorghum made its NASCAR debut across the hood of the #45 truck at the JAG 350 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in Fort Worth, fueling Texas native and driver Austin Wayne Self to the finish line.
The Texas Grain Sorghum Producers in conjunction with Sorghum Checkoff, partnered with Self, Niece Motorsports and AM Racing at the November race to promote sorghum and its use in ethanol. Funds for the sponsorship were provided through a $17 million USDA Biofuels Infrastructure Program Grant, plus another $13 million in matching grant money from cooperators through the Texas Department of Agriculture. The grant funds were primarily used to install 782 E15 blender pumps throughout Texas at businesses such as H-E-B, along with storage tanks and infrastructure.
“We had a little money to do some marketing so we went out recruited Austin Wayne Self of the NASCAR series and got him to let us put the Sorghum logo on his pickup, on the hood and on the side of the pickup,” says Wayne Cleveland, executive director for TGSP. “Those guys use E15 fuels, so it was just a cool deal.”
As for the driver, he says representing a Texas commodity like sorghum that is used to make the ethanol he uses to fuel his truck, is easy for him to get behind.
“For me it’s more than a logo on a truck— I get to represent something I believe in,” says Self, who spoke to the Texas Grain Sorghum Producers board and delegate body at their meeting in Austin during the 2018 Texas Ag Forum. “When you’ve got a bunch of fans up there it makes it personal. It’s estimated that NASCAR has 80 million Americans out there looking to support a driver and get behind something they believe in. That’s why I think sorghum is so interesting in NASCAR. It’s real easy-- you’ve got ethanol fuel, motors and you’ve got trucks racing at peak performance, so it ties into something the fans understand.”
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is the youngest pickup truck racing series owned and operated by NASCAR, and is the only series in all of NASCAR to race modified production pickup trucks. Feedstock grains such as sorghum and corn are used to make ethanol, the fuel used in NASCAR vehicles.
“In NASCAR we run E15, so it’s 15 percent ethanol,” says Self, who started racing go-karts with his father at the age of four. “It’s better for the environment and it has a higher octane rating so it allows the motors to run at a higher compression rate. It also burns cleaner which allows our motors to have more longevity.
“Ethanol plays a big role in NASCAR.” E15 contains 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gas.
Self, who finished second at Daytona International Speedway in 2017, says being a professional race driver is a dream come true, but getting to partner with Texas companies, only sweetens the pot. “I think the coolest part for me is not only do I get to drive race cars every weekend, but I’ve been handed the opportunity to represent Texas companies. I can’t tell you how cool it is to work with ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ and get to really bring out my Texas pride. That’s made the dream sweeter. It’s one thing to get to drive race cars, it’s another to be from Texas and get to show off your Texas pride every weekend.”
Cleveland along with John Duff, Sorghum Checkoff renewables program director, had a front-row seat at the Texas Motor Speedway event.
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“For farm kids like me that appreciate horse power, it was like (as he imitates the roar of the engines)…it’s just awesome the sound and to get to be in there,” says Cleveland. “Since we were a signature sponsor, we were in the pit. Right below us is where they were changing the tires and gassing them up. It was pretty surreal. I’m from Paducah, Texas, and I have these Paducah moments like, ‘how far can you get from Paducah, this is crazy.’
“But more for me was seeing the logo, “Sorghum: The Smart Choice,” plastered on the wall that all those thousands and thousands of people saw. To me it was a great lead into what our future is going to be like.”
According to NASCAR Analytics and Insights, the November 3 race, at its peak, had an average of 565,000 viewers tuned in per minute and the event led to 796,000 visits and 3.5 million page views across the NASCAR digital platforms on race day. NASCAR-owned social content posted on race day earned 12.7 million impressions and generated 1.3 million engagements. On race day, videos shared on Facebook generated 979,000 views, a 36 percent increase from last year.
Changing the culture
Exposure to NASCAR fans is one of many ways Texas Grain Sorghum Producers is trying to increase its commodity footprint. “To be honest there’s a negative culture about sorghum, it’s something a lot of Plains farmers plant after cotton or corn’s failed,” Cleveland says. “Sorghum was one of the original crops on the High Plains; it’s what brought the cattle feeding industry there. Then the hybridization in the late 1950s, early 1960s, really changed the complexion up there. Somewhere we got lost and didn’t do the right research and corn came along and was hybridized and we just got out yielded. The water situation was incredible back then so you could water quite a bit— sorghum doesn’t respond quite as well to water. It’s kind of finicky on not getting too much water.”
One of the ways the organization is trying to change the culture is by bringing in leadership. Cleveland says the group has gone from a board of directors of nine, to a delegate body of 40 to 50 people made up of local and industry leaders, with the majority of the members growers. “We always represent the growers,” he says. “But to bring these folks in and talk about sorghum issues, to talk about our PAC, National Sorghum Producers Political Action Committee, talk about our research projects, but mostly to get it on their minds that this not something that you plant after everything else.”
Promoting sorghum isn’t about one commodity over another. Cleveland says it’s all about the grower. “This is all about keeping growers healthy. It’s not one versus the other. This is about being competitive up to a point and realizing this is about growers, if they can plant cotton or corn or whatever to make a living, that’s awesome. We just want them to know the facts about sorghum.”
Some of the benefits of this semiarid crop is that it’s a great rotation behind corn and cotton, says Cleveland. “Our research is starting to show this, but 10 years ago, we were not able to do that because we just didn’t have the funds.” When rotated behind cotton, Cleveland says there is a 10 percent to 15 percent yield increase the subsequent year.
“What we are starting to see, is where there used to be a section of corn, now there is a half section of corn and a half section of grain sorghum. So, if you plant your corn early enough and separate out your grain sorghum, you’re still watering both of them but you’re doing it much more efficiently. You’re not pulling all the time, you’re watering one and then you go to the other. And then you rotate the next year,” describes Cleveland. “We found out this works with cotton as well, it staggers the irrigation rotation. Quite frankly, sorghum doesn’t need as much water as corn so when you have a declining water table, it works really well because if you have any water at all, you put water on it 30 days after you plant it—when you plant it makes a lot of difference on the yield.”
As with any crop, sorghum has an enemy, the sugarcane aphid. In 2016, the pest destroyed one million acres but with research conducted by Dr. David Kerns and other Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialists, Cleveland says they are learning ways to manage the problem. “The growers that stuck it out and learned more about it have increased their yields because they were forced to go into their fields and scout every five days. They were finding they may have head worms or other insect problems and they were able to remediate that. Even the hardcore growers ended up going back in their fields more than they wanted to but they learned more about their fields. So, it was kind of a, ‘I wish it hadn’t happened,’ but I think it made our industry a little stronger, a little smarter and showed them that if you invest in it, it will come back.”
While only 1.5 million acres of sorghum were harvested in Texas in 2017, Cleveland says they are expecting about 1.75 million acres in 2018.