From animal feed to ethanol to tasty food products – including flour and cereal safe for people living with celiac disease – Nebraska’s grain sorghum is an extremely versatile crop.
“There has been lots of success in the sorghum industry, and we’re getting outstanding yields,” says John Dvoracek, a sorghum farmer located northwest of Farwell in the central part of the state. “It’s been really great to see all the renewed interest in the crop.”
Dvoracek has been farming as long as he can remember and has served on the state sorghum board for a number of years. He says you can make just about anything with sorghum, and his favorite snack is to pop it like popcorn.
“It’s better because it doesn’t have the hulls,” he says.
Categorized as a cereal crop, archaeological findings confirm the ancient grain has been around since 8000 B.C., originating in eastern Africa. It’s also commonly referred to as milo.
Barbara Kliment, executive director of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board, says sorghum is generally cultivated in areas that are too dry or too hot for corn production. In Nebraska, this means production is mainly in the southeast-central to west-central area and south of the Platte River.
“Sorghum is planted mainly on dry land acres, but recent restrictions on water available for irrigation have brought renewed attention to sorghum as a water-use-efficient rotational crop with corn, soybeans and wheat,” Kliment says.
Just as wheat and corn are used for many different things, sorghum also has a wide variety of uses, with the most common being an ingredient in livestock feed. The grain is also incorporated into pet food for dogs and cats, and used frequently in birdseed.
The commodity can be found in a number of industrial products, such as ethanol, plywood and gypsum board manufacturing, and the production of packing peanuts.
“Approximately one-third of the U.S. sorghum crop goes into production of biofuels,” Kliment says. Livestock feed takes another 33 percent, and the export market consumes about 20 percent of the crop. These three comprise the core market for sorghum farmers in Nebraska and the United States.
But despite its relatively small market saturation, one significant and fast-growing use of sorghum is in food for humans.
The grain is inherently gluten-free, making it safe for people with celiac disease and other food allergies. People who have celiac disease are unable to digest gluten that is found in wheat, barley and rye, which restricts their diets. Dvoracek says about 2 percent of the total U.S. sorghum crop is used for human consumption.
Sorghum is also high in protein and is a great source of energy, containing 75 percent complex carbohydrates. It contains a high amount of vitamins, minerals and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Dvoracek says recent research has found that the bran part of the grain, when ingested, helps to balance digestive activity, can lower cholesterol and helps with Crohn’s disease, which is a form of inflammatory bowel disease.
Because sorghum plays a prime role in the diets of those with celiac disease and other allergies, Kliment adds that demand for the crop from food companies increases each year, in both domestic and international markets.
“And sorghum tastes good,” Kliment says. “One does not have to be celiac or have a food allergy to enjoy and benefit from the wholesome goodness of sorghum. It can be substituted for wheat, barley or rye flour in a variety of baked goods. When cooked as whole or pearled grain, it can also be eaten as a hot cereal or used to replace pasta in salads, casseroles and soups.”