Exceeding expectations is now an annual occurrence for U.S. sorghum producers. Since the drought of 2011-2012, each year means another record broken or another challenge overcome. This progression is nothing new for an industry often thought of as on the brink of extinction. However, a few specific numbers behind the great sorghum comeback are truly amazing, even for producers as unrelenting as those who grow sorghum.
The 2016 harvest brought another national yield nearing 80 bushels per acre. A phenomenal yield by any standard, but compared to the low point of the 2011-2012 drought — when the U.S. sorghum yield failed to break the 50-bushel mark for the first time in 29 years — the 2016 triumph takes on new meaning.
This 56% increase occurred in just four years and is by itself a proud accomplishment for U.S. sorghum producers facing unprecedented economic stress. Is there a deeper meaning or a larger trend at play? I believe the answer is “yes.” Sorghum producers continue to hone their craft, aided in their quest for higher yields by a breeding community whose hard work to improve sorghum genetics is finally beginning to pay off.
Sorghum stakeholders are often frustrated by the crop’s seeming inability to live up to its yield potential. The 15-year trend yield projection is only 71 bushels, and given the world record is 249 bushels, this frustration is understandable. However, it is important to remember the Sorghum Belt lies in what was once known as the Great American Desert, so trend yields and production potential must be adjusted to reflect this challenging environment.
Using the 1996-2010 trend to estimate yields during the 2011-2012 drought, then recalculating the current 15-year trend, results in a 2017 U.S. sorghum yield projection of 75 bushels per acre. The projection rises to 78 by 2020 and 89 by 2030. These projections are a welcome outlook for producers in the arid Sorghum Belt and confirm when given the right genetics, U.S. sorghum producers are indeed the best in the world.
Servicing the Chinese market is another significant accomplishment for U.S. sorghum producers recovering from the 2011-2012 drought. China has created more opportunity for U.S. agriculture in the last 15 years than any one group except ethanol producers, leading commodity markets higher on unparalleled demand for everything from precious metals to protein. It is unsurprising sorghum producers would benefit, but the scale at which these benefits accrued was unpredictable.
Chinese purchases of sorghum began in August 2013, and by 2015, the annual value of U.S. exports of the crop to China was approaching $2 billion. This year will end with the value of sorghum exports to China near $1.5 billion. The total economic impact on the U.S. sorghum industry since China entered the market is more than $4.4 billion, and Chinese feed mills have taken delivery of 771 million bushels of U.S. sorghum.
Similar to yields, these export values are impressive by themselves. Nonetheless, even sorghum producers may be surprised to learn the only U.S. agricultural commodities with exports valued higher in 2016 were soybeans, valued at $11 billion, and forest products, valued at $2.3 billion. The demand itself was essential; however, the U.S. sorghum industry would have never realized billions of dollars in export value if not for producers willing to answer the call with record-breaking production.
Cogburn writes from Abernathy, Texas. His twitter handle is @nspchris.