Sorghum Finding Glamour in California?

By John Duff
Sorghum Checkoff Renewables Program Director

Glamour. Not a word often associated with agriculture. Unless you’re like me and grew up idolizing the farm and everything it stood for, then certain high-yielding, high-return growing areas are pretty glamorous. But most people still wouldn’t exactly consider the Texas Panhandle or south central Nebraska glamorous. Wholesome? Absolutely. Productive? You bet. But glam? Probably not.

Now California, on the other hand, is undeniably glam. What with legendary venues like The Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go, the Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific Coast Highway. And then there’s Lake Tahoe, Silicon Valley and those multi-million dollar water’s edge bungalows facing the infamous Alcatraz, which juts up out of the San Francisco Bay like some kind of sorcerer’s castle.

But we’re way off the rails here. Or are we? For a farm boy, the Central Valley is pretty glamorous. There’s that word again. And here’s another one: paradisiacal. Almond trees, citrus groves and vineyards abound in this veritable embarrassment of agricultural riches. So why is sorghum a smart choice here? And how could California bring a little glamour to the Sorghum Belt?

For starters, California farmers are faced with an incredibly tenuous water situation, and I know many farmers in the Sorghum Belt can relate. Feed for livestock is also a top priority, as it is here on the Plains. There is certainly no shortage of forage production in California, with almost 400,000 corn acres devoted to silage production. But with the world population exploding and U.S. cattlemen chomping at the bit to rebuild the herd, more and more will be needed. This presents a significant opportunity for water-sipping sorghum forages, as a panacea for the water situation in the Central Valley is unlikely to be found anytime soon.

But distillers grains—which not only provide a high quality source of protein for livestock but lessen the animals’ supplemental water needs as well—have a big role to play, too. And for the three ethanol producers in California, Aemetis Inc., Calgren Renewable Fuels and Pacific Ethanol LLC, this is good news.

These three got another kind of good news in late July as well, when the California Energy Commission announced each would receive $3 million to develop sorghum as a feedstock for their operation. (See where I’m going now? Thanks for staying with me.) This is good news for the sorghum industry as well, obviously, as $9 million and hopefully some glamour was just injected into it.

The California ethanol producers like sorghum. They see sorghum as a smart choice and want to source as much sorghum locally as they possibly can, while relying on the rails that wind up and around the Rockies and back down into the Sorghum Belt for the rest. I think it’s safe to say no one’s under the illusion that all the California ethanol producers’ grain needs will be met by sorghum tomorrow. Or even next year. But the fact is Aemetis, Calgren and Pacific represent over 80 million bushels of annual demand, and if they jump even halfway into the sorghum market, they’re collectively one of the few largest end-users on the planet.

And more demand means higher prices. And higher prices mean Sorghum Belt farmers can go buy nice vehicles and aviator sunglasses and cruise around town. See? Glamour.

So we’re doing everything we can to help these three producers source sorghum. We’ve been out to California to see them. We’ve written letters supporting their efforts to use more sorghum. We even brought them out to the Plains to meet with grain originators a couple months ago. That was a fun one. It’s really gratifying to be able to help put significant end-users in the same room as significant originators and listen as they work together to dissect the logistical and economic challenges and opportunities associated with moving millions of dollars worth of a commodity your friends, family and employers produce.

The water is dropping; sorghum is a water efficient crop. The protein-consuming population is rising; sorghum distillers grains are almost 40 percent protein. Sorghum is undoubtedly a smart choice. And maybe with California in the mix, sorghum is a glamorous choice as well.

Here’s hoping it is.