By Ben Rappaport
Steven Smith is a third-generation tobacco farmer who still lives and works on the same 100 acres in Bladenboro as his great-grandfather once did. The land has been in his family for nearly a century, and he hopes to pass it on to his son.
But as the tobacco market declined, Smith knew he had to change with the times. While he still grows the family crop, his land is now also home to soybeans, wheat and corn. This year, he’s added something new to the mix: 30 acres of sesame.
Smith is one of 10 farmers across the state to be part of a new initiative funded by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s New and Emerging Crops Program. The state has spent more than $225,000 supporting the research and implementation of growing sesame, a protein-rich seed used in some foods and cosmetic products.
All told, the tiny yet mighty seed was planted on 2,259 acres across 16 counties as part of the program.
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“It’s certainly been a bit of a learning curve,” said Smith, who is one of two Bladen County farmers participating. “But it’s exciting to do something new and I think we’re getting good results.”
After planting 190,000 seeds per acre in June, Smith harvested most of his sesame last week. He believes it will be a profitable crop, and he’s not the only one who who is confident about sesame’s potential.
N.C. State University agricultural researcher David Suchoff, who led the statewide sesame program, said that in 2020, the crop sold for about 50 cents per pound. In 2022, it sold for 60 cents per pound. Demand is expected to increase.
About 100,000 acres of sesame were grown in the United States last year, according to Texas-based company Sesaco, which is involved with the crop from seed development to ingredient sales. Sesaco says about 650,000 acres of sesame are needed to meet the demand in America alone. Most domestic sesame is currently grown in Texas and Oklahoma, and most of the crop is imported from abroad.
More than 2,000 acres in North Carolina’s inaugural year of growing the crop is a good start in helping to meet that demand. The average net revenue for farmers within the program who grew the crop this year was about $350, according to Suchoff.
In addition, Sesaco contracted with nearly 150 farmers in North Carolina and South Carolina to process more than 10,000 acres of their harvested seeds from this year’s growing season.
“It is a high-value, low-input crop,” said Carl Coleman, a seed dealer in South Carolina. “Normally those two words never get used in the same sentence in agriculture.”
Coleman is the co-owner of Choice Agriculture, which served as a liaison between farmers and Sesaco. He said there is tremendous interest among farmers in the Southeast because the cost of things like fertilizer and generic crop seeds are rising, but not for sesame.
Suchoff said sesame would be a good fit for North Carolina because of its growing market, drought tolerance and ability to grow in a variety of different soils. The seeds are also resistant to nematodes and deer, which cost farmers thousands of dollars in damaged crops every year. These traits make it resilient to climate change.
“With changing climate and with these extremes that we’re experiencing,” Suchoff said, “the sesame companies want to have a little bit more variety in terms of where the crop is grown.”
Farmers in the state’s Sandhills region may have the most to gain from sesame because of the difficulty of growing crops in the sandy soils. While other crops may be quickly stressed from coarse soils, sesame’s resiliency can adapt well to the conditions, Suchoff said.
Sesame is also a low-input crop, meaning many farmers already have the necessary equipment to produce it and can easily fit it into their regular crop rotations.
“This is a crop that feels doable,” Smith said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s something so far out of what you already do as a farmer.”
Three years of research went into examining the viability of the crop in the state before Suchoff reached out to Smith and other farmers to grow test plots. Once early research proved the crop could be successful, the research team used the grant money to cover input costs and minimize risks for farmers who took on the task of growing sesame.
“There’s a lot of risk associated with trying a new crop,” Suchoff said. “We want farmers to feel comfortable experimenting with this crop and not feel like they are going to lose a lot of money.”
After a favorable harvest this season, Suchoff said he has already received growing interest from farmers across the state. Many farmers were “waiting on the sidelines” to see how the crop would fare this year before planting it themselves.
The biggest challenge of sesame farming in the near future, according to Coleman, will be ensuring there isn’t an oversaturation in the market.
In Smith’s first year growing sesame, he said he’s learned several things he hopes to improve upon. For example, his crop grew taller than he anticipated, which he attributes to over-densifying his plants. Suchoff said other farmers advised planting the seed deeper in the soil due to sesame’s extensive root system.
“We based our recommendations on what farmers are doing out west,” Suchoff said. “But we were almost too successful here.”
The crop in North Carolina saw higher rates of emergence and seed germination than in Texas and Oklahoma, meaning next year farmers should grow fewer and more spread out crops to reach peak production, according to Suchoff. This will allow for shorter plants with more branching.
With minimal issues, a plan for the future and a growing market, Smith and Suchoff both see sesame as a long-term option to include in crop rotations.
“I think it has the potential to be incredibly productive,” Smith said as he looked out at his field of sesame. “I see so much promise here.”