There was a time when Earl Roemer never gave a second thought about sorghum.
Most considered it a second-class commodity compared to corn and wheat—staple crops on the High Plains where he farms, the fourth-generation farmer said.
“All we did in the 1970s was feed grain sorghum to hogs,” Roemer said.
But fast-forward 40 years and Roemer sees a golden age for sorghum. As a growing number of consumers change their dietary habits, Roemer has capitalized on the crop’s gluten-free and non-GMO properties—starting a business venture he calls Nu Life Market. From an unassuming complex on the outskirts of Scott City, Kansas, Roemer is operating the nation’s largest grain sorghum flour mill, selling product to big food companies like General Mills and Kellogg.
“Who knew?” said Roemer with optimism during a farmer panel discussion at Sorghum U. “Now (sorghum) is one of the highest products and the most demanded specialty product in the United States. Our company was a big part of that.”
Adding value to sorghum was the focus of this year’s Sorghum U, which was sponsored by High Plains Journal and included venues in Salina and Dodge City. Topics included on-farm storage, maximizing economic yield through fertility and managing weeds and insects. Speakers also discussed the crop’s water-sipping properties, along with value-added marketing, which for Roemer, includes the growing food industry.
Treat sorghum like you would corn
A reoccurring theme echoed by speakers was don’t give up on sorghum.
“The main thing is, don’t treat sorghum like everyone thinks it is—the redheaded stepchild,” said Zack Rendel, a farmer from Miami, Oklahoma. “If you are going to grow sorghum, treat it how you would grow corn.”
He realized this several years ago. Rendel, a sixth-generation farmer from an area that averages around 40 inches of rain a year, noticed his sorghum yields were staying a steady 85 to 100 bushels an acre year after year. Then, one year, he planted sorghum on a field following a poor wheat crop.
“So, we had a lot of extra fertilizer on the ground,” he said.
Sorghum yields increased to 110 to 120 bushels an acre, which made Rendel realize if he wanted to reap higher bushels with sorghum, he had to invest in it.
“Instead of treating grain sorghum like grain sorghum, I started treating grain sorghum like corn,” he said.
Changes included making sure he uses enough nitrogen. Each fall, Rendel spreads about 2 tons of poultry litter an acre on his fields. He runs soil tests on his fields every three years.
He’s spending the same amount of money on sorghum fertility as he is corn, which is about $80 an acre. “But the returns, because seed costs are so low on sorghum versus corn, I make all the money back.”
His yields now average around 120 bushels an acre and he is still trying to push yields by applying more fertilizer on a few test fields.
“It’s not economical to do it, but I just want to see myself based on testing what that sorghum crop has in it—how far I can push it,” he said, noting he elevated one field to 162 bushels an acre.
“I think we can get it higher than that, I really do, and make it economical.”
Sign up for HPJ Insights
Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.
Rendel has a hands-on approach to research. He won’t invest in a new product unless he knows it will make him money.
“How do I know if what the snake oil salesman is trying to sell me actually works,” he said. “The first thing I tell him is give me some free product. I’ll try it side by side. If it pays for itself and makes more bushels than what it costs, I’ll use it.”
Throughout his field he does strip tests—using a yield monitor to check the strips. He also keeps track of everything on spreadsheets—right down to the penny.
“If it costs me $5 an acre and I didn’t get the two bushels to pay for it, it is out the door,” he said, adding he gives it three years to prove its worth. “Before you make a big investment across the whole farm, make sure it works first.”
He also spends eight to 10 hours a week scouting his fields.
“The best thing you can see in your field is your shadow,” Rendel said. “You can’t really put a bushel per yield on it, but I’m sure I’ve raised yields by scouting. I find problems as soon as they are happening.”
Adding value through on-farm storage
When J.B. Stewart returned to the farm in 1970, he realized he needed to implement three ideas if he wanted to be as successful as some of his neighbors.
These farmers harvested their own crops. They had their own sprayers. They also built on-farm grain storage.
Stewart built his first bin through a Farm Service Agency loan in 1978. It held 8,000 bushels.
He filled the bin with wheat its first year and things worked out so well he was able to build another bin in 1982 and a third in 1985. They had about 50,000-bushel storage until the 2000s. But, sorghum just didn’t work well in farm storage during those times.
“We didn’t market our sorghum, we disposed of it. There was no excitement in it,” Stewart said. “But I always felt like there was a value in sorghum that we weren’t getting paid for.”
Now with a place to store a crop, he’s beginning to see the value in having the storage available.
“The No. 1 key thing to sustainability is profitability and I just feel like the addition of the farm storage adds a level of profitability that over my career of farming for 50 years,” Stewart said. “I’m really glad I started out with some farm storage and what it’s done for me.”
Today, he has 800,000 bushels of grain in storage on his farm near Keyes, Oklahoma, he said. Stewart estimated farmers pay about 5 cents a bushel a month to store grain at the local elevator. He figures his own storage costs at about 3 1/2 to 4 cents a bushel.
“Farm storage, it adds value to your grain every year as long as you raise it,” he said.
But it’s not as easy as simply building bins and putting grain in them. Stewart said producers must take the time to set the combine and have good samples. His sorghum is monitored with moisture test weight collections at harvest. He takes it one step further and gets his grain officially graded.
“You’ve got to be willing to get out there and work at it and market your grain,” he said. “We’re firm believers in using the grain brokers because you need somebody.”
It’s also made him a better farmer—from working to increase fertility to having quality and clean samples. He also can gain value on his sorghum crop by marketing it directly to end users.
“Even when grain prices are in the tank…we are gaining 15 percent going to the end user,” Stewart said.
What the consumer wants
Roemer said timing is everything in business. And grain sorghum has two attributes that consumers are currently demanding.
It’s gluten free. It’s also a non-genetically modified organism.
“Our growth rate last year was far greater with non-GMO than it was gluten free,” he said. Later adding, “When I started this business, there were virtually no products on the grocery-store shelves that had grain sorghum in it.”
Last year, he counted more than 1,200 products.
The key to creating this opportunity on his farm and potentially other farms was aided by the added value of very specific grain sorghums. Nu Life Market’s plant breeding program works with marketing and purchasing departments of the large companies to get specific traits they want and need.
“We select lines within the sorghum germplasm to develop new grains for that application,” Roemer said. “And that’s what creates massive value in those grains and building that credibility.”
Besides the seed and flour, Nu Life also pops sorghum and is the biggest “popper” in the United States.
“We can pop a semi load of popped sorghum every single day with automated equipment,” he said.
Nu Life contracts with several farmers in the region to produce Nu Life derived sorghum genetics, Roemer said. He has a strict identity-preserve program they follow that requires no contamination with other crops. There are also pesticide restrictions—no application of chemicals past flowering.
“If you get into some late-season challenges with head worms, you can spray it, but it disqualifies the field,” Roemer said.
Roemer pays his team of farmers a premium, which averages about a $1 a bushel over the local elevator price.
Moreover, he said, a consumer could trace a box of cereal with sorghum ingredients back to the field.
“It’s not about us,” said Roemer. “It’s not about how I feel about GMOs on our farm. It’s about the consumer and the consumer willing to pay more for a product with that characteristic. It has been a huge opportunity for grain sorghum to be non-GMO.”