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Drought Kindles US Farmers' Appetite for African Grain Sorghum

Fred Prokop grows sorghum and corn on his farm outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. (VOA/S. Baragona)

Fred Prokop grows sorghum and corn on his farm outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. (VOA/S. Baragona)

LINCOLN, Nebraska — As the worst drought in decades dries up U.S. corn supplies, some are seeing the virtues of sorghum, a crop that originated in Africa.

Sorghum, a cereal grain, is a minor part of the U.S. harvest today. But, as the climate changes, experts believe the drought-hardy food and fodder crop may become more popular.

Walking through lush, green fields of sorghum, Nebraska farmer Fred Prokop treads on ground deeply scarred by weeks of drought.

But he says the sorghum crop is patient.

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"It'll wait for water. But corn, that's done. Even if it does rain," Prokop says.

Harsh environments

Just a few rows over, his corn is brown and lifeless, as it is for many farmers across the U.S. Midwest.

The shrunken corn harvest will raise the price of meat, milk and eggs as the cost of feeding livestock goes up.

Years like this one are why University of Nebraska researcher Ismail Dweikat is a passionate advocate for an under-appreciated crop.

"Sorghum is used to harsh environments," he says. "Because it's raised there."

African grain

In hot, dry regions of Africa, sorghum is a staple food. Its waxy leaves and deep roots are better suited for dry climates than corn is.

And Dweikat says that's going to be increasingly important.

"I think maybe this is the first year we have real drought in Nebraska. But I think more of it's to come," he says.

And not just in Nebraska. More droughts are expected worldwide this century as climate change warms the planet. That will make crops like sorghum essential, Dweikat says.

It also has potential as a biofuel crop.

Today, ethanol plants consume at least a quarter of the U.S. corn crop. But Dweikat says sweet sorghum, grown for its sugar cane-like stalks rather than for grain, can be turned into ethanol more efficiently than corn.


Despite all of sorghum's advantages, American farmers planted 16 times more hectares of corn this year.
Sorghum is a hardy crop which can grow on drought-scarred ground. (VOA/S. Baragona)

Sorghum is a hardy crop which can grow on drought-scarred ground. (VOA/S. Baragona)

One reason is because there are fewer customers for sorghum. Farmer Fred Prokop says only one nearby grain elevator will buy his sorghum.

"At the elevator they like corn better," he says. "There's a better market for corn."

Corn is also more profitable for farmers when water isn't an issue, and crop insurance protection is cheaper.

Plus, vastly more research has gone into improving corn compared to sorghum. Dweikat says 22 times more scientists work on corn, with 100 times the funding.

"So you can see how much there's a disparity between sorghum and corn, and how much advancement you could make in corn compared to sorghum," he says, "because we don't have the manpower. We don't have the resources."

Keeping the faith

But Dweikat has faith in the hardy grain.

"I completely believe in it," he says. "I know that it's maybe next year, the year after, the year after, 10 years from now, even after I die, sorghum will be the crop."

He may not have to wait that long. Fred Prokop is already thinking about planting more sorghum next season.

"If it's going to be dry again next year, [sorghum] is going to do better than the corn," he says.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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