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Published May 12, 2014, 09:45 AM

Sorghum group seeks funding for research

Interest in gluten-free foods is growing, and a North Dakota-based organization is proposing to test 108 early maturing sorghum lines that potentially could fare well in the state.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Interest in gluten-free foods is growing, and a North Dakota-based organization is proposing to test 108 early maturing sorghum lines that potentially could fare well in the state.

Preliminary evaluations “look promising. We’re excited to see if these (lines) will work for us,” says Frank Kutka, co-coordinator of the LaMoure-based Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s Farm Breeding Club.

His group has requested $44,717 from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission, a committee of the state Department of Commerce, to cover costs of the proposed testing.

The commission is scheduled to review the request May 14 in Williston.

If funding is approved, further testing would begin this spring at sites in Carrington, N.D., and Dickinson, N.D., Kutka says.

Sorghum, typically grown in warmer climates than North Dakota’s, is a substitute for wheat in gluten-free diets. White sorghum, which the proposed testing program would cover, can be used for foods such as cookies, cakes, breads, pasta and cereals.

Several members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society are interested in white sorghum, but early maturing lines are needed because of the state’s climate, Kutka says.

Though based in North Dakota, the organization also has members in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa, Wyoming and Nebraska.

The tests would be of immediate value to North Dakota producers, but ultimately would help farmers in other states, too, Kutka says.

About 70 lines that would be tested in North Dakota come from Matt Kolding, an emeritus cereal breeder with Oregon State University.

Kolding worked with sorghum, among other crops, in Oregon for many years.

He tells Agweek he’s pleased to see greater interest in the crop.

“It’s a good diet for people, that’s for sure,” says Kolding, a Larimore, N.D., native.

Gluten intolerance

Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is a digestive condition that damages the surface of the small intestines and blocks the ability to absorb certain nutrients, according to www.MayoClinic.com.

People who suffer from the disease react badly to gluten, a type of protein found in most grains, including wheat.

Roughly 40,000 to 60,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the disease. But the federal government estimates there could be as many as 3 million sufferers who haven’t been diagnosed, according to the Lubbock, Texas-based United Sorghum Checkoff.

‘Poor man’s corn’

Sorghum sometimes is known as “poor man’s corn.” Though it doesn’t yield as well as corn, sorghum is a hardy plant that can grow in soil other plants won’t tolerate. Perhaps more important, it doesn’t need much water — about one-third less than corn, for instance.

The crop is widely raised as a human food product in parts of Africa and Asia. U.S. farmers grow it primarily for livestock, but it’s used in ethanol plants, too. Gluten-free sorghum also is attracting more interest from people with celiac disease.

Sorghum is rare across most of the Upper Midwest, but relatively popular in parts of South Dakota. The state is on the northern end of the U.S. Sorghum Belt, which stretches to southern Texas.

Last year, Kansas led the nation with 2.8 million harvested acres of sorghum, with Texas second at 2.3 million acres. South Dakota ranked third with 275,000 acres.

Corn’s popularity has risen in recent years in South Dakota, reflecting new corn varieties that better tolerate drought.

Even so, sorghum continues to be an attractive crop for some producers in the state, says Bob Fanning, a Winner-based South Dakota State University Extension plant pathology field specialist who works with the crop.

Efficient with moisture

Sorghum “doesn’t take quite as much soil moisture to get that first bushel of grain as corn does,” Fanning says. “It’s also quite efficient producing bushels or pounds of grain per inch of additional water after that.”

Sorghum also is less susceptible than corn to some insect pests and diseases, he adds.

Another benefit: seed costs are substantially lower for sorghum than corn. Those savings are partially offset, however, by the higher cost of greater herbicide use on sorghum than on Roundup Ready corn, Fanning says.

Sorghum also holds appeal in South Dakota because the crop can help to maintain large numbers of pheasants. In 2012, pheasants drew 163,041 hunters and generated $172.5 million in economic activity across the state, according to information from the state Department of Tourism.

The ability to hold up in drought remains sorghum’s biggest selling point, Fanning says.

“Sorghum is still able to produce with limited rainfall,” he says.

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