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

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

Food For Thought

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

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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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