Drought and deer destroyed the first cotton and soybean crops Russell County farmer Keith Thompson planted on 180 acres this year. So, when the fertilized fields were still empty in July, he turned to sesame.
“I found out sesame could be planted late and still have time to produce,” Thompson said. “I had never seen the crop before we planted it.”
Thompson is among a growing number of Alabama farmers who are giving the plant a try.
Domesticated well over 5,000 years ago, sesame seed is considered to be the oldest oilseed crop known to man. It has been called a survivor crop, with its ability to grow where most crops fail and for its drought tolerance. It also has the highest oil content of any seed, and its rich nutty flavor makes it a common ingredient in cuisines across the world.
Thompson said the crop has been relatively easy to care for. Deer nibbled around the edges of the fields, but the majority is free from wildlife damage.
“I’m just learning as I go,” Thompson said. “There are just a couple of other farmers out here growing sesame. It’s interesting.”
A new variety of sesame, marketed by Sesaco, is the reason behind the sudden interest in the crop. Traditionally, sesame was hand-harvested because the capsules shattered before harvest. With the new variety, the capsules remain intact through the mature and drying stages and can be harvested with a combine.
Lawrence County farmer Larkin Martin grew sesame from 2009 to 2011. Martin didn’t plant sesame this year but may go back to the crop one day.
“I think it has potential for Alabama, and it’s good for farmers to have a variety of crops to spread out risks,” Martin said.
In her experience, sesame requires less water than soybeans and has good roots that penetrate and loosen soil. Sesame prices are usually competitive with soybeans, although for the 2012 season soybean prices increased substantially.
Sesaco offers farmers a contract before planting, which Martin said can help growers plan their prices for the year.
It can be difficult to establish a stand from the small-seeded crop, especially when planting into heavy cover, according to Martin. She also said there are few herbicides approved for use on sesame, and storage of the small seeds requires a special bin aside from standard grain bins.
For farmers who are considering growing the crop, Martin suggests learning more about it first.
“Google it, learn about it and become more comfortable with it,” she said. “Talk to Sesaco and ask all the questions you need to know. There is a bit of a learning curve with sesame. We learned as we went through it.”
Sesaco Regional Contact Zack Coker said Alabama is home to the highest yielding dry-land sesame fields. In 2011, about 1,500 acres of sesame were planted in Alabama and more than 130,000 acres were planted in the U.S.
Sesame plants have bell-shaped flowers that bloom for a number of weeks. Mature plants stand between 5 and 6 feet tall. Whole sesame seeds are used for baking, and sesame oil extracted from the seed is used for cooking.
Sesame can be used in rotation with cotton, corn, wheat and peanuts, according to the American Sesame Growers Association (ASGA). Thompson said depending on how this crop turns out, he could see growing sesame in the future.
“Soybeans and sesame would be two good crops you could plant behind wheat, and you wouldn’t have to plant the same thing every time,” Thompson said.
On average, Alabama farmers harvest 1,000 pounds of sesame seeds per acre. Last year, the average market price was 37-cents per pound.