David A. Widmar
It happens about once a month. I pick up a popular press publication, something of national focus and not agricultural focuses, and find an article about the amazing potential of grain sorghum for U.S. grain producers. From superior drought-tolerance to advanced bio-fuels or favorable export conditions to China, these articles seem contrary to the trend I had in mind for sorghum in the U.S.
Spending a good portion of my life in Kansas, it was common to observe and talk about how far west farmers were planting corn. Sorghum had once been the king of the fall crops; traditionally a rotation option on dry-land acres. But a combination of factors – including improved corn genetics – shifted acres away from sorghum. With general impressions, especially in areas once producing sorghum, being so different from the story being touted in popular press, we turned to the data.
The graph below shows sorghum acres and bushels of production in the U.S. since 1929. Up until the late 1950s, acres of sorghum planted increased over time; peaking in 1957 at nearly 27 million acres. Sorghum production, measured in bushels, peaked in 1985 at 1,120 million bushels of production.
In recent years, sorghum production, measured in both acres and bushels, has contracted. Acres hit a low point at nearly 5.4 million acres in 2010, or only 20% of the acres in 1957. In fact, a trend-line analysis would show that sorghum acres decreased by more than 263,000 acres per year from 1957.
The story is similar for bushels produced. From its high, bushels of sorghum produced has been on a downward trend with a low-water mark of 214 million bushels of production in 2011; this represents 19.1% of bushel production in 1985.
The second graph is more recent look at sorghum, only showing total acres planted over only a 10-year period (2004-2013). From the historically low-point in 2010, sorghum has seen growth in acres planted. In 2013, 49% more acres were planted than in just the three year prior; an annualized growth rate of 14.3%. Furthermore, 2013 represented the second-highest acres planted over the past 10-years.
The implications of this trend and how decision-makers frame the situation can have a huge impact for the sorghum industry moving forward. Will those making decisions on how to invest future research and development dollars look at the long-term trend of sorghum with decreasing acres and bushels of production? Or will they look at only the recent history and see a crop that has seen expansion of its acres in the U.S.? Whether your impression of agriculture is one of a decreasing crop or the crop of the future likely depends on the time-frame you are considering; it depends.
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Photo Source: Claus Rebler/Flickr