The market is waiting. The demand is raging. Grow sesame and the buyers will come.

It’s hard to argue for a hardier crop than sesame. With a 7,500-year history of success in the parched soils of Africa and the Middle East, sesame is a low-input, drought-tolerant crop — and Delta farmers are taking notice.

Sesame has been grown for roughly 20 years in the United States, mainly in Oklahoma and Texas. But 2013 is the first year to see substantial acreage in Arkansas and Mississippi — approximately 25,000 acres.

Ellington and Turner Massey, Massey Planting Co., Rudyard, Miss., are heading toward harvest with 305 sesame acres, and the father-and-son pair believes they have found an excellent fit for their fields. “With sesame we’re talking about a really low-input crop,” says Ellington. “Seed, herbicide, fertilizer, harvesting; all costs excluding land-rent come to about $100 per acre.”

And with soybeans sometimes costing in the $350 per acre range; or cotton and corn often around $600 per acre; $100 per acre sesame can snap necks.

Sesame is a tiny seed, and like most smaller-sized seeds, needs warm soil to germinate. With a rough planting window of May 15 to June 4, sesame is a late-planted crop and needs a ground temperature of at least 70 degrees. It matures in 120 days, has strong shatter-resistance, and can stay in the field for three months waiting on a farmer to collect. The seeds are contained in pods and protected from weather. If a sesame crop is mature on Nov. 1, it can sit — unharvested — until January or February. Get conventional crops in first; get sesame last.

 

For photos of the Massey's sesame plantings, see Sesame spreading across farmland

 

“What got our attention was the fact that we could plant it after wheat because sesame matures in about 120 days. Planting after wheat still gives you plenty of time before you might catch a frost. Also, we didn’t have to buy any equipment. On sesame, we can use our conventional equipment for soybeans and corn to plant and harvest,” says Turner.

 

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Traditionally, sesame is harvested by hand across the world — with a massive amount of seed and profit lost to shatter. Lack of efficient production is a major hole in global production, a gap that U.S. farmers can fill. New shatter-resistant varieties developed in the last seven years are arguably the key component driving the spread of sesame acreage in the U.S. Standard equipment is all that’s required for sesame harvest and the same combine can be used for corn, soybeans, wheat — and sesame.

Big demand gap

All sesame seed in the U.S. is produced by Sesaco and is distributed in the Delta through Dulaney Seed, Inc., Clarksdale, Miss. Wayne Dulaney, lead agronomist for Dulaney Seed, believes sesame carries a host of benefits for growers: “It’s a low-input crop. A farmer could gross $400 per acre from sesame. It has soil benefits as well, with a really long taproot that can extend 6 feet down. Sesame is almost like deep tillage and provides for looser soil. It’s a non-host to nematodes and a very good rotational crop for something like cotton. The water demand for sesame is very low and sesame makes a good fit following dryland wheat. It can be hit-or-miss to double-crop with soybeans due to rainfall, but sesame takes only half the amount of rain that soybeans do; it takes 20 percent less water than even grain sorghum. It’s got a very low moisture requirement. The two most drought-tolerant crops we have are grain sorghum and cotton — sesame takes less water than both.”

Sesame acreage is currently done on a contract basis. Producers sign up to plant a given amount of sesame. Sesaco sets a price — first price of 2013 was 42 cents per pound. Sesaco then buys every pound of sesame that comes off a contracted field at 42 cents per pound.

 

For photos of the Massey's sesame plantings, see Sesame spreading across farmland

 

“Potential yield is anywhere from 500 pounds to below 2,000 pounds per acre. That’s because it’s dryland and rainfall may determine the yield. It’s so new to the Mid-South that no one really knows what our yield potential is,” says Turner.

Transport at harvest is relatively simple compared with other grains. If a producer averages 1,000 pounds per acre, that equates to one truckload per 50 acres, and about 50-60 acres of cleared sesame per day. It’s not a high-volume crop like corn or soybeans. “Dulaney Seed will be our delivery point,” says Turner. “The Japanese said they want 1 million acres; the global demand is there.”

 

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Condiment, baking ingredient, cooking oil or flavored oil — the market demands are endless. “What is amazing is going into the grocery store and looking at how many products contain sesame. There are companies that want to add sesame as a food ingredient in their product lines. But right now, there’s a three-month supply-and-demand gap that can’t be filled,” says Terry Dulaney, Dulaney Seed CEO.

No wildlife, no bugs

Almost 1.6 million tons of sesame is traded each year across the world; that’s more sesame than cocoa. Domestic use in the U.S. is at 100,000 tons per year — and surging. In the Middle East, a tremendous amount of sesame is used for oil as an ingredient in tahini paste. Tahini is mixed with chickpeas to produce hummus. Likewise in the U.S., one of the fastest growing segments of the sesame business is tahini for hummus.

“This is not about hamburger buns,” says Ellington. “Each seed is 50 percent oil; and 50 percent protein. In a lot of foreign countries, it’s used to make tahini paste. The market is gigantic overseas, but the U.S. market is growing. We have to import 75 percent of what we consume.”

 

For photos of the Massey's sesame plantings, see Sesame spreading across farmland

 

Another huge plus for sesame: Wildlife doesn’t like it — wild hogs and deer won’t eat it. For farmers who have soybean crops ravaged by pigs and deer, sesame offers an option. Ellington says in addition to an absence of wildlife, insect troubles have been almost nil. “Another thing that is a major attraction: We don’t know of any insects that attack sesame. We haven’t found a worm, aphid, or stink bug in our sesame fields.”

But what are the drawbacks?

“Sesame needs to have good drainage,” says Wayne. “That’s probably its Achilles heel — drainage.” The weed hurdle can also be significant. All sesame varieties are conventional, and not glyphosate-resistant. “Dual Magnum and Select Max are labeled weed control options, but the labels must be read carefully. Pigweed can be a problem for sesame.”

“Weed control for sesame is still a question. You’ve got to be careful with your fields and your neighbor’s. The sesame can’t handle glyphosate so you’ve got to watch out for drift,” echoes Turner.

Despite weed questions, Turner believes Massey Planting Co., has found a sesame fit. “We think it will be a perfect rotation crop.”

Most farmers have pieces of ground with poor output and are often searching for a crop to match that difficult soil and make income. For hot, sandy land, where other crops tend to burn up every year, sesame has the legs to produce where other crops can’t.

“There are so many benefits to consider with sesame: doesn’t use much water; grows in poor soil; no new equipment is necessary; sits in the field for long periods at harvest; and wildlife won’t eat it,” says Wayne. “Sure, some people might think it’s way too good to be true — but it’s not.”

 

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