Kansas is the nation’s top sorghum producing state. And sorghum farmers in Kansas and across the Sorghum Belt are starting to get a leg up.
The farmer leaders of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission, Kansas State University and the United Sorghum Checkoff Program worked together to form the Collaborative Sorghum Investment Program, or CSIP. It’s a platform for public and private collaboration tackling sorghum challenges and opportunities.
Housed at the Kansas State University Center for Sorghum Improvement, top-tier researchers will focus on enhancing sorghum for the domestic sorghum farmers and they’re aiming to bridge basic science with commercialization in the sorghum industry. Their main vision for CSIP will enhance sorghum yield, demand and value.
A farmer’s need
For Stockton, Kansas, farmer, Stephen Bigge, sorghum is what his entire crop system rotates around.
“I plant wheat so that I can have the wheat stubble to plant sorghum into the following year,” Bigge said. “When push comes to shove, other than cattle, sorghum is my profit driver. It’s what helps pay the bills.”
Bigge also advocates for sorghum and is a Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission chair. He believes it’s farmers like himself that can help ensure the future of the crop.
“I’m involved because I have the opinion, if I’m not out there advocating for it I don’t know who else might be,” Bigge said. “I feel like I’m in a position that I can help advocate for it, being a younger producer and I just know it works well in my operation.”
Since the inception of CSIP, he believes the KGSC has started to look for ways to leverage the producer’s investment in sorghum research.
“We have encouraged researchers to look for grants that would allow the commission to increase the amount of money being invested in sorghum research through the competitive grant process,” Bigge said. “We are also evaluating ways to increase consumer awareness of sorghum’s positive environmental impacts, such as its drought tolerance, as well as its many others uses.”
Historically the KGSC has been focused on agronomic trait development—weed control, stalk strength and yield. They’re also working on improving sorghum demand in several different areas.
“We have partnered with KSU and other public and private researchers to focus on trying to bring producers new products to their fields,” Bigge said. “We have recently started to look at ways to help create demand for sorghum, both domestically and international, through participation in foreign trade missions, and other market development activities.”
Florentino Lopez, executive director of the Sorghum Checkoff, said CSIP has been an opportunity for state and national programs to work along side those researchers at K-State.
“It offers us the opportunity to come together as a national program, as a state program, as a university and really define what is it that the farmer is needing and how are we going to solve that issue or those issues,” Lopez said. “And frankly that is the key.”
And if CSIP doesn’t function like that, it “has no merit whatsoever,” he said.
“Our merit really comes down to the fact of how we, long-term, are going to satisfy the producer as it relates to improvements from a field-level value,” Lopez said. “Whether that is associated with yield or whether that is associated with another factor within farm-level production values as well as the market capabilities that move along side that.
Lopez said those two things are very critical.
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As a founding author of CSIP, Lopez believes they’ve been able to better define and work toward improvement that will have farm-level value for sorghum producers and the industry as a whole.
The program was always designed with the intent of finding the best people to do the work, and for Lopez, if it was another university instead of K-State, they would have went that route.
“It was never intended to just be one area of expertise,” Lopez said. “The program was designed to find the most important or the best researchers and utilize them to actually meet those goals and objectives those producers are badly in need of.”
“It’s kind of like the seedling that is put in the ground, that we’re all tending to and just wanting to watch it grow,” Jesse McCurry, executive director of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission, described CSIP as a sound concept that just needs to mature.
To support the program’s launch, the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission and USCP will each provide $2 million, made in annual payments of $200,000 for 10 years. The Kansas Department of Agriculture will provide $20,000 per year for 10 years, and K-State will invest $800,000, for a total of $5 million. Further partnerships are sought to expand the pursuit of the center’s objectives to enhance the domestic sorghum industry.
The KGSC investment is directed to a foundation account to provide for an additional ten years of program investment following the initial decade.
“We kind of have a sequence of funding levels that ensure the thing grows—and the thought processes, in my own words, is really to effectuate and accelerate results,” McCurry said.
Manhattan, Kansas, was really the ideal location for CSIP operations because of people working at the IGP Institute and the Kansas Department of Ag on sorghum exports; sorghum breeders and researchers at the university who touch various areas where sorghum is used.
“What we were missing was a center point of the spoke of the wheel,” McCurry said. “And that’s what CSIP is.”
McCurry said the group has a vision for the future, but the Center for Sorghum Improvement is more about a deeper understanding of the ongoing research projects at the university.
Both the state of Kansas and Kansas State University have a vested interest in CSIP.
“K-State’s mission as a land-grant university compels us to engage as partners with the Kansas department of agriculture and farmer stakeholders to address problems of importance to all Kansans,” said Ernie Minton, interim dean, K-State College of Agriculture. “That includes not only research and engagement to address production challenges and issues, but also to train the workforce that will be needed to support the industry in the coming years and decades.”
The College of Ag and K-State’s Research and Extension have a unique commitment to sorghum.
“We continue to maintain a significant investment in sorghum breeding with tenure track faculty located in Manhattan and Hays,” Minton said. “We also have a faculty team that spans from basic genetics to sorghum disease and pest management.”
He’s encouraged at the continual work in areas like sorghum.
“We continue to be engaged with farmers and the sorghum industry as part of our mission as a land grant university committed to stakeholder engagement to understand significant, real-life problems and create solutions that address those problems,” Minton said.
CSIP partner and Ag Marketing Director at the Kansas Department of Agriculture Kerry Wefald is proud of the sorghum industry.
“We’re proud of the effort to do a state and national partnership,” she said. “Obviously our Kansas producers are going to benefit from having real based research happening at K-State, which is our land grant institution, but the sorghum industry as a whole is also benefiting because some of that research may not be Kansas specific.”
Subsequent research might be industry specific and KDA is grateful to the USCP for allowing the center to be developed in Kansas and at K-State.
“We’re also proud of the industry as well as our farmers and ranchers in our state who can benefit from finding or market development opportunities that happen at the CSIP level,” she said.
KDA sees the value in research for farmers and ranchers not only in Kansas, but industry-wide.
“We financially support the components. We support the center,” Wefald said. “But we also take a step back and look at the ag growth strategy that those engaged in sorghum or sorghum by-products have historically asked for some sort of center that can help create a public, private partnership to advance the interests of the sorghum.”
Managing director at the Center for Sorghum Improvement, Sarah Sexton-Bowser said the center serves both farmers and industry by identifying key priorities and then forging ahead with the support of 21st research capacities and a disciplined work plan to achieve deliverables at the farm level.
Bowser hopes the center can accomplish what the founding agreements charged it with—enhancing yield, demand and value. Her job is to evaluate resource investments as to whether or not they support the center’s aim.
“In the first two years, the Center has filled the pipeline with a disciplined investment portfolio that touches efforts spanning the value chain from seed to end-utilization technology,”she said. “To date, we have hosted major companies with big interest in sorghum.”
Bowser said there’s a wealth of research and knowledge surrounding sorghum.
“We connect that knowledge to decision makers,” she said. “Just this past week, a collaborative effort with KDA, and Greg Aldrich, KSU pet scientist, yielded a great engagement with 30 decision makers in the pet food industry learning and discovering untapped opportunities with sorghum in their business.”
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].