News / USA

    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.

    "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.

    Outnumbered

    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)
    x
    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.

    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.

    You May Like

    Syrian Rebel Realignment Likely as al-Qaida Leader Blesses Split

    Jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra splits from al-Qaida in what observers dub a ‘deception and denial’ exercise

    New India Child Labor Law Could Make Children More Vulnerable

    Concerns that allowing children to work in family enterprises will push more to work

    What Take-out Food Reveals About American History

    From fast-food restaurants to pizza delivery, the history of take-out food explains a lot about the changes taking place in society

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: muoi from: west
    August 26, 2012 8:27 PM
    We need to wake up...Sorghum is more nutritious, easier to grow, and drought resistant. More farmers need to follow Dweikat's lead!

    by: Peter from: Kentucky
    August 23, 2012 7:53 AM
    So, the corn has 22 times more scientists and 100 times more research funding and the corn is dying while the sorghum lives. I'm just saying.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Busi
    X
    July 28, 2016 4:16 AM
    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Philadelphia Uses DNC Spotlight to Profile Historic Role in Founding of United States

    The slogan of the Democratic National Convention now underway in Philadelphia is “Let’s Make History Again” which recognizes the role the city played in the foundation of the United States in the 18th century. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, local institutions are opening their doors in an effort to capitalize on the convention spotlight to draw visitors, and to offer more than just a history lesson.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora