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Sorghum

In this file photo, two larger and heavier heads of an experimental sorghum (left) are shown along with the two varieties most North American farmers grow.

Don Bloss’ phone has been ringing more than usual lately.

He has been getting calls from grain merchandisers and younger farmers, and they all want to talk about the same thing -- sorghum.

Merchandisers want to buy it, and farmers want to know how he goes about growing it.

The ancient grain, also known as milo, is enjoying some time in the limelight thanks to strong demand from China and low corn prices.

This season, sorghum prices are set to beat out corn for the first time in eight years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently forecast the average sorghum price for 2014-15 neck-in-neck with corn at $3.20 to $3.80 a bushel. 

Over the past decade, sorghum prices have averaged 6.4 percent lower than corn. The last time milo surged past corn was in 2006, according to the USDA.

China’s voracious appetite for the grain, which it uses mainly as livestock feed, stems from the country’s rejection of certain varieties of genetically modified corn, plus a lack of tariff rate quotas. There is no commercially available GMO sorghum.

Sorghum is naturally gluten-free and an important ingredient in many gluten-free foods. And it can be popped, like popcorn.

Fields of the grain used to be a common sight across Nebraska, much of it grown on marginal ground. But those acres began shrinking in the 1990s as Congress beefed up the nation’s conservation reserve programs, which pay farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production.

In 1984, Nebraska farmers planted 2.1 million acres of sorghum. In 1999, they planted 550,000 acres, and this year, 150,000 acres, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Bloss and his two sons farm about 2,000 acres of dry land near Pawnee City, of which about 300 acres are planted with sorghum. He is getting 75 cents to $1 more per bushel for the milo than the corn he grows. Both crops yielded an average of 130 bushels an acre for him this year.

Some farmers have scoffed at milo, calling it a poor-man's crop, but Bloss likes it.

“I’ve always planted sorghum, ever since I was in high school (in the 1960s),” he said. “It has always produced me a crop, even in the very driest years.”

Milo takes less water to grow than corn, input costs are less and it is heartier during dry years. Plus, wildlife like pheasant and quail like it better than corn to eat and for cover.

And sorghum's biomass can be used to make ethanol.

The University of Nebraska Department of Agronomy & Horticulture has predicted that intensive plant breeding and research could increase the sugar content of juice in the stems of sweet sorghum over time high enough to produce 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre. 

But unlike corn, which has been genetically modified to resist pests and herbicides, sorghum cannot be grown with Roundup to take care of weeds.

Barbara Kliment, director of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board, said milo farmers don’t want the grain to be made Roundup-ready. The non-GMO label is part of the appeal, and using Roundup would add a risk of milo cross-pollinating with closely related weeds including shattercane.

Trenton-area farmer Mike Baker estimates corn costs him $100 or more an acre to plant, while sorghum costs $15 an acre. He works about 2,500 acres in southwest Nebraska, of which 800 are in sorghum.

Llike Bloss, he's been hearing his phone ring more than usual this year.

“I’ve had lots of calls from grain merchandisers from Colorado to Omaha and everywhere in between. I had one grain broker from Cleveland, Ohio,” he said. “If people know you grow grain sorghum, they’re going to hunt you down and buy it.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ljsbergin.

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