Tiny sesame seed offers big returns for Southern Plains growers

We see them as delicate little flourishes on a hamburger bun or some artisanal bread in a local bakery. We barely even give them a second glance before we tear into our burgers.

And yet, sesame seeds pack a lot of advantages into their tiny size for the farmers who are starting to grow this crop in the Southern Plains.

Michael Peters is a wheat farmer who also grazes stocker cattle near Okarche, Oklahoma. Like many of his neighbors in central Oklahoma who have grown continuous wheat for generations, he’s started to see weed pressure in some of his wheat fields and he’s turning to crop rotation to help him out.

“In the central part of Oklahoma here, we have such a problem with rye and rescue grass,” Peters said. “Chemicals don’t seem to help clean them up entirely. So, I’m choosing to do a little crop rotation, trying to come back with some different weed control. And, sesame is a crop I can make some money on.”

Travis Schnaithman is a fifth generation farmer near Garber, Oklahoma. His family raises wheat, soybeans, corn and now sesame.

This is both Peters’s and Schnaithman’s second year growing sesame under contract for Sesaco Corporation, of Austin, Texas. Sesaco is the largest private company in the United States that contracts farmers to raise its proprietary varieties, and then processes and markets the seeds and oil.

Peters said the sesame contract is very attractive to his business planning and his lender. He explained that the contract sets a price for the crop before the seed is in the ground and the price doesn’t fluctuate with the market. There’s an act of God clause that is attractive to new growers so that the farmer is not penalized if weather or Mother Nature prevents a sesame crop from being harvested. Sesaco provides the seeds from its breeding program and there are staff agronomists available to help farmers with their production questions.

“From the standpoint of banking or business planning, to have that set price and knowing what you’ll get with whatever yield you do grow gives you a peace of mind,” he said.

For the Schnaithmans, the attraction was sesame’s drought tolerance. Its ability to grow on “tougher” acres that don’t have the water-holding capacity suitable for soybeans or corn meant the farm could put those acres into production.

Peters has tried other rotational crops with his wheat. He grew winter canola for three years, but he said he never was successful with it because of insect pressures and harvest hassles.

“Then, the price dropped,” he said. “There we were, having to spray canola for insects two or three times or risk not getting a crop at all and we weren’t locked into a price.”

Sesame works quite nicely into Peters’ grazing and wheat production.

“I will graze my wheat out and pull the cattle off by mid-April,” Peters said. “Then, we’ll burn down the field with Roundup, to clean up the rye and grassy weeds.” He’ll plant sesame in the cleaned up field, which will be harvested in the fall.

Last year, that harvest was in November, following a freeze event, which helped desiccate the plant. This year, though, there are approved desiccants that farmers can apply to their sesame to help move up harvest and hopefully avoid late fall weather complications.

“I’ll probably apply a desiccant sometime around Sept. 12, and then 10 days later start harvest, around Sept. 25 or so,” Peters said. There is some concern because the desiccant has to be aerially applied since the crop can grow 5 to 6 feet tall and ground rigs can’t get into the field without damaging the crop. With surrounding fields of cotton and soybeans, Peters said he’s in communication with neighbors to make sure his applications don’t affect their crops.

That information goes both ways, as sesame is sensitive to dicamba and 2,4-D, chemicals commonly used in cotton and soybean production. Peters said communication among neighbors is critical since farmers are turning more and more to diversification in their cropping practices.

While this is only the second year both have grown sesame, Peters and Schnaithman said they have learned some key lessons to raising a successful crop. First, is the timing of herbicide application.

“They recommend planting the sesame, then waiting three days, and then applying pre-emerge herbicides on,” Peters said. “There’s some concern that pre-emerge herbicides could affect the germination of the seed.” To add to the efficacy of his herbicide application, Peters uses conventional tillage.

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For Schnaithman, pigweed control was what attracted him to sesame.

“We can use a herbicide to control pigweed that Sesaco recommends and it fits into our operation,” he said.

Second, is to really monitor planting in order to establish a successful stand of sesame.

“It’s such a little seed and it’s so particular in planting depth,” Peters said. “If you get a heavy rain right after planting, you might as well just start over.” He said ground temperature has to be fairly warm for sesame, which is why he plants in mid-May. He uses a Great Plains air seeder and takes a little of the down pressure off the rig to get the right seeding depth. He also prefers to plant on 7.5-inch row spacing, rather than the recommended 15-inch spacing, in order for the canopy to close quicker and prevent weeds from establishing.

“Getting a stand is the No. 1 obstacle,” Schnaithman agreed. He plants with a planter because there’s less hairpinning in the wheat straw, and he can reduce the seeding rate down to 1.5 to 2 pounds per acre, whereas he would have to plant 3 to 4 pounds with a drill.

“If you can plant canola, you can plant sesame,” Peters said.

Finally, as for insects, so far there are few insects in the region that have developed a taste for sesame. Although Schnaithman said his family saw some insect pressure last year.

“We saw cabbage loopers moving from soybean fields into the sesame fields, so you do need to watch for them,” Schnaithman said. “Also, beet army worms. It’s not quite insect-proof.”

“There’s this one little bug, similar to a boll weevil, that will burrow into the capsule,” Peters said. “It won’t take the whole pod. And it’s not to a threshold we feel like we need to spray. But I’m sure the more sesame that’s grown in an area, the more insects that will find it attractive.”

Peters said he looks forward to what sesame can do for his overall soil health.

“It seemed, last year, to have mellowed the ground out,” he said. “The sesame has a lot bigger root than wheat, and that long tap root could help us with our hard pan and soil compaction.” It might even help mine nutrients far deeper than what wheat can reach, he said.

Every year farmers and the agronomists at Sesaco learn a little more about sesame and how it performs in more and more regions. For example, this year the company applied some nitrogen in-season to see if it will boost yields, Peters said.

“Last year we put a little fertilizer down in furrow with the seed just to have a carrier for the air seeder,” Peters said. “This year, we just broadcast fertilizer before planting, and I’m not sure if I wouldn’t go back to in-furrow application next year.”

And both Peters and Schnaithman say they will grow sesame again next year.

“If I can make 1,100 pounds per acre like last year I would be tickled,” Peters said. “If I can make 750 pounds per acre I’ll still be happy.” In the long run, Peters said it’s the crop rotation that will truly benefit his farm. It’s just a really happy coincidence that there’s a contract for sesame that provides a set price.

“Anytime you rotate out of a crop, the next year should be better,” Peters said. And for these farmers, that’s sesame’s ultimate return to their bottom lines.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].