Nestled deep within a crunchy granola bar or sprinkled as a garnish on top of a freshly baked hamburger bun, sesame seed rarely receives time in the spotlight. In Oklahoma, however, that’s a different story.
The History of Oklahoma’s Sesame Seed Crop
As one of only two states that currently grow commercial sesame seed – the other being Texas, though production is slowly spreading to Kansas and Arkansas – Oklahoma has been harvesting the crop since 1996. Originally, it began as small-acreage farms, but today, the state is on track to produce close to 150,000 acres of sesame, with production steadily increasing.
“We began growing sesame in 2010, and were looking for something that would generate some revenue after a failed wheat crop,” says Matt Braun, who produces 1,000 acres of sesame in Hobart with his father. “Sesame seemed to be a viable option, and we already had all the equipment we needed.”
It’s not unusual for sesame growers to also be wheat growers, or to have started with wheat, especially because sesame uses the same equipment. However, sesame is a much lower-risk crop, thanks to its drought and heat tolerance, and lack of insect or disease issues in Oklahoma, according to Jared Johnson, northern Oklahoma and Kansas production manager for Sesaco, a processing firm located in Hobart. It’s also a good rotation crop, which helps farmers earn more income when traditional crops have failed.
Braun begins planting at the end of May or early June and says the soil needs to be warm. Harvest is typically after the first frost, around November.
“I think sesame has proved to be a profitable crop and helps with rotation,” Braun says. “With grain prices fluctuating, people are searching for different options. Sesame has proven it can be a profitable deal with a good marketing source.”
Braun grows his sesame for Sesaco.
“Sesaco has a 30-plus-year history working with sesame,” Johnson says. “We develop genetics and work with farmers to contract and sell the sesame, plus advise them in planting, growing and harvesting.”
What Is Sesame Seed Used For?
Sesaco processes sesame for three main ingredients. As a whole grain, sesame comes in two forms. Unhulled sesame is called natural sesame, and it’s used in foods such as granola bars, sesame snacks and crackers. Hulled sesame is what you would find on top of a hamburger bun. Tahini is sesame seeds that are ground up to a consistency similar to tomato sauce that is a staple ingredient in hummus, or that can be used on its own. Finally, sesame oil makes up about 70 percent of the market. The seed itself is made up of more than 50 percent oil, and sesame oil accounts for the largest consumption of the crop.
Jerry Riney, director of production for Sesaco, says the Hobart plant makes sesame more attractive to Oklahoma growers.
“The fact that our processing plant is in Hobart makes it logistically attractive,” he says, “but the prices are also favorable in an economic comparison to wheat, sorghum or corn right now. Especially with the drought, the inputs on sesame are low, and it can be managed when you’re not receiving much rain.”
Braun, Riney and Johnson all agree that for Oklahoma agriculture as a whole, sesame is a beneficial addition.
“The biggest thing for me is adaptability,” Johnson says. “Farmers have many options on how and when they plant, and it’s a crop that can survive summers and do really well.”