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Heat, Drought Draw Farmers Back To Sorghum, The 'Camel Of Crops'

A test field of sorghum outside Manhattan, Kan., planted by Kansas State University. (NPR)

Much of the world is turning hotter and dryer these days, and it's opening new doors for a water-saving cereal that's been called "the camel of crops": sorghum. In an odd twist, this old-fashioned crop even seems to be catching on among consumers who are looking for "ancient grains" that have been relatively untouched by modern agriculture.

Sorghum isn't nearly as famous as the big three of global agriculture: corn, rice and wheat. But maybe it should be. It's a plant for tough times, and tough places.

Sorghum "originated in the northeastern quadrant of Africa," explains Gebisa Ejeta, a plant scientist from Ethiopia and professor at Purdue University. From there, it spread across Africa, India and even into China. "It's got a lot of characteristics that make it a favorite crop for the drylands of Africa and the semi-arid tropics."

It's an essential source of food in those regions, but it's not typically a big money crop. In Africa, it's grown by subsistence farmers. It's never gotten much attention from seed companies or investors.

But it is nutritious. It can grow in soils that other plants won't tolerate. Above all, it doesn't need much water. Compared with corn, for instance, it needs one-third less water, and it doesn't give up and wilt when rains don't come on time. It waits for moisture to arrive.

It probably arrived in North America aboard slave ships. That traditional sorghum looks like an overgrown corn plant, up to 10 feet tall, with a head of seeds on top.

Today, American farmers grow two kinds of sorghum. Sweet sorghum is tall; you can use it to make a sweet syrup or just feed the whole plant to animals.

But most sorghum in the U.S. is grown for feed grain. That version of the plant is short, with seeds that come in several different colors.

Steve Henry showed me some near Abilene, Kan., on our way to the farm where he grew up. Kansas is the biggest sorghum-growing state. Out here, they call milo.

"You've got white milo, red milo, yellow milo," says Henry, scanning the field. "Basically, you have the little berries, and they're filled with starch, like like corn is filled with starch, and the starch is what we're after."

Sorghum is used for the same things as corn: high-energy feed for pigs and chickens. It also gets turned into ethanol.

But corn is far more popular. Corn produces a bigger harvest, and farmers earn bigger profits with it — at least when there's plenty of water. In the U.S., the amount of land in sorghum has been steadily shrinking.

There are signs, though, of a sorghum revival on the high plains. The reason is water, or the lack of it. From Nebraska to western Texas, cornfields have been fed with rivers of water pumped from underground aquifers, and that water is starting to run low.

Some farmers, such as Mitchell Baalman of Hoxie, Kan., are looking for crops that aren't quite so thirsty. "We're learning a lot about milo," says Baalman. "You know, nobody wants to grow milo out here; it's kind of a forgotten crop. But I tell you what, there's where our money's going to be made this year. It'll be on grain sorghum."

Ejeta, who won the World Food Prize in 2009 for his work on sorghum, says that sorghum's renaissance may depend on the price that farmers pay for water. "If water is given its real value, and you limit irrigation, or people begin to pay for water, it would be economically smarter to grow sorghum in several areas of the United States," he says.

In the latest twist to the sorghum saga, it's actually becoming somewhat trendy among consumers who are looking for something a little different, and maybe a little more healthful.

"Sorghum is naturally gluten-free; it's an ancient grain," says Earl Roemer, who set up a company called Nu Life Market to sell sorghum flour to big food companies. Roemer's sorghum mill in Scott City, Kan., is busy. "Demand is exploding!" he says. "We're seeing 25 to 30 percent increase in demand, annually. We're doing all we can to increase production." His flour goes into gluten-free baked goods and is also used in breakfast cereals containing so-called ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth and spelt.

Every week, he says, visitors from food companies large and small make the trek to western Kansas to talk about new opportunities. Next week, he says, he's traveling to Taiwan to explore international markets.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When it comes to food, what's old is new. Consumers in search of novelty, and maybe some healthier options, are turning to food made from once-obscure plants. Think quinoa, spelt, and sorghum. For American farmers, though, sorghum has another selling point. It may be just the crop for a planet that's getting hotter and drier.

NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Earl Roemer's family has grown sorghum in Western Kansas for more than a century. But about 10 years ago, he sniffed an opportunity. He set up new company, Nu Life Market, and now he sells sorghum flour to big food companies.

EARL ROEMER: Sorghum is naturally gluten-free. It's an ancient grain.

CHARLES: Both of which are trendy qualities right now.

ROEMER: Demand for our food products is exploding. We're seeing 25 to 30 percent increases in demand, annually. You know, for now we're doing everything that we can to expand production.

CHARLES: His flour is going into gluten-free baked goods or breakfast cereals containing so-called ancient grains. It's in those products, sometimes, together with quinoa, or spelt, or amaranth. But sorghum actually has a very different history. And until now it's certainly never been trendy.

GEBISA EJETA: The crop originated in the northeastern quadrant of Africa.

CHARLES: Gebisa Ejeta a plant scientist from Ethiopia. He's now a professor at Purdue University.

EJETA: It's got a lot of characteristics that makes it really a favorite crop for the dry lands of Africa and the semi-arid tropics.

CHARLES: It's an essential source of food from Africa to China. But it's not a big money crop anywhere. It's never gotten much attention from seed companies or investors. But it is nutritious. And its great virtue is it's tough. It can grow in soils that other plants won't tolerate and it doesn't need much water. It's so good at getting through droughts; in fact it's been called the camel of crops.

EJETA: It's grown everywhere it's possible to raise a crop.

CHARLES: Traditional sorghum looks like an overgrown corn plant up to 10 feet tall with a head of seeds on top. It probably arrived in North America on board slave ships. American farmers now grow two kinds of sorghum. Sweet sorghum is tall; you can use it to make a sweet syrup or just feed the whole plant to animals. But most sorghum in the U.S. is grown for grain. That version of the plant is short with seeds that come in several different colors.

Steve Henry showed me some near Abilene, Kansas, on our way to the farm where he grew up. Out here, they call it milo.

STEVE HENRY: You got white milo, red milo, we got yellow milo. Basically you have the little berries and they're filled with starch, just like a corn seed is filled with starch. And the starch is what we're after.

CHARLES: Sorghum is used for the same things as corn. It's a high-energy feed for pigs and chickens or it gets turned into ethanol. But American farmers grow about 30 times more corn than sorghum. Corn produces a bigger harvest and farmers earn bigger profits, at least when there's plenty of water. The amount of land in sorghum has been steadily shrinking.

There are signs, though, of a sorghum revival on the high plains. The reason is water or lack of it. From Nebraska to West Texas, corn fields have been fed with rivers of water pumped from underground aquifers. That water is starting to run low.

Some farmers like Mitchell Baalman of Hoxie, Kansas, are looking for crops that aren't quite so thirsty.

MITCHELL BAALMAN: We're learning a lot about milo. You know, nobody wants to raise milo out here, it's kind of a forgotten crop. But I tell you what, there's where our money is going to be made this year will be on grain sorghum.

CHARLES: Gebisa Ejeta, the Purdue scientist, says whether farmers really turn to sorghum may depend on the price they pay for water.

EJETA: If water is given its real value and you limit irrigation, or people begin to pay for water, it would be economically smarter to grow sorghum in several areas of the United States.

CHARLES: All over the world, in fact, water for crops is growing more scarce. And part of the answer may be a return to this long-neglected camel of crops.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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