Crop proves tough amidst drought

The following article was published on October 3, 2011 in County World

Sept. 22, 2011 - Despite the challenges facing agriculture this year, it has been a time to put crops touted as drought-tolerant to the most extreme of tests. In that spirit, the Luling Foundation Farm contracted with a company called Sesaco to plant 35 acres of sesame on the west end of the farm to see how it did in a year that was predicted to be hot and dry, and went way beyond that prediction.

Planted in May and receiving just 3.92 inches of rain since then, the farm's sesame acres have formed a patch of peculiar and persistent green in an otherwise parched landscape. Luling farm Director Mike Kuth said the crop was new to him, as it is to most growers across the state, and that he prepared beds in January, kept the weeds at bay and otherwise left it alone. He hopes to get 400 to 500 pounds of seeds when he harvests in the next couple of weeks.

"We basically took care of the weeds, cultivated it once, and left it alone," he said.

Charles Stichler, a retired Extension agronomist, has worked with sesame since its early days in Texas, and has known for a long time that the plant is drought- and heat-tolerant because he helped grow it around Fort Stockton and Pecos, two of the state's driest areas. Stichler worked with Texas sesame pioneer D. Ray Langham on some of those early varieties, including one genetic fluke that grew with its pods closed. The closed pods allowed the plants to be harvested with a combine instead of by hand, as has been the case for thousands of years with sesame.

"What you did when you harvested by hand was you picked the plants and laid them in a pile and then very carefully moved them to the thresher. You had to be very careful because the pods were open and the seeds would fall out," Stichler explained. "The closed pods allow the plants to be harvested with a machine."

D. Ray Langham's father, Derald G. Langham, was a professional plant breeder who found the first closed pods when Ray was about 10 years old. In 1986, the teamed up to discover a new closing variety. "Combined, they (the Langhams) have about 70 years of breeding experience," Stichler said. "There are no other varieties like these in the world."

Stichler is a consultant for Sesaco, an acronym for Sesame Coordinators, which is the only U.S. company that sells sesame seeds that can be harvested with a machine. Representatives of Sesaco went to Luling recently to meet with producers at the sesame fields to tout its heat and drought tolerance and its possibility as an alternative or "catch" crop. Jerry Riney, director of production for Sesaco, pointed out that Sesaco sesame is not a GMO plant. "It's always been heat and drought resistant, and it has few insect or disease problems. The only difference is that ours can be harvested with a combine," he said.

Sesaco has contracted with farmers to grow sesame in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma since 1987 where it caught the attention of Stichler and others. Riney also pointed out that sesame is not drought proof or heat proof but it stands up better than most to those two extremes. "The seeds have to get wet at some point," he said.

Riney added that sesame is isn't bothered to any great extent by insects, feral hogs, deer, cattle or other living creatures, though there is nothing to keep hogs from bedding down in a sesame field. The bugs and the critters generally taste a few leaves and leave the rest alone on their way to somewhere else,

Ray Reininger of M and R Farms in Seguin grew sesame on his place this year and said it has done well with very little attention. He said there are some paths through the sesame where hogs have traveled but they haven't rooted in the patch or eaten the plants. "It's given me very little trouble," he said.

Sesame is a hot-weather, 120-day plant that comes up quickly, matures slowly at first and then begins producing nodes at an increasing rate until they are anywhere from three to seven feet tall, depending on the variety. It's used as an oil and for its seeds, which decorate untold millions of hamburger buns, and in products ranging from shortening and margarine to paints, soaps and perfumes. Nearly all of the sesame oil in the U.S. is imported. Some premium crops are used in tahini, sort of a sesame peanut butter. U.S. sesame production focuses on the seeds because the varieties sold by Sesaco make it possible to harvest the seeds on a commercial scale.

The Luling contract with Sesaco is for 40 cents per pound. Kuth's expected harvest of 400 to 500 pounds of seeds per acre is down considerably from other harvests in other parts of the state in other years, but is notable because it survived a summer when most other crops did not.

"Sesame is more forgiving that cotton, corn and some other crops, especially in a year like this," Riney said. "It will usually hold a good relative yield."

More information on U.S. sesame production and Sesaco is available at www.sesaco.com.


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