July 12, 2012 - In extolling the virtues of sesame as a crop for arid regions, which includes most of Texas, Charles Stichler related at a recent Stiles Farm Field Day how an Oklahoma farmer he knows turned animals loose in his sesame field in hopes they would eat the weeds he hadn't controlled. Not only did they eat all the weeds, they left the sesame alone.
"I know that sounds like salesman's talk, but it happened," Stichler said.
Stichler, a retired agronomist with Texas A&M University and now an education coordinator with Sesaco, the country's only processor of "closed" sesame seeds, has worked with sesame since the late 80s and has extolled its suitability for Texas farmers ever since. After last year's drought, farmers are listening a little more closely.
"There are a lot of reasons to grow sesame in Texas," Stichler said. "I first worked with it at Fort Stockton and found it to be a good crop. It's the most drought-tolerant summer crop we can grow. The last rain we had in this area was six weeks ago, and that's when we planted. Sesame needs a little moisture to get started, so it's a good idea to plant it right after a rain, usually around the first of May when the temperature is at least 70 degrees. You might see pigweed wilting in the summer heat, but sesame can stand 110 degrees and be as happy as can be. It's about a 90-day market."
Federal insurance is available for sesame in certain Texas counties, he added.
This is the first year that sesame has been planted at Stiles Farm in Milam County, where they expect to harvest about 800 pounds of seeds this year. Sesame has been grown in South Texas since the 1980s when Stichler first worked with it; it is also grown on the High Plains. The Luling Foundation Farm planted its first crop last year.
"It was extremely dry last year, of course, just like it was for everybody else, and we harvested about 400 pounds an acre," Luling Farm director Mike Kuth said. "It's still relatively dry, but this year's crop is off to a good start. We're expecting a little better crop this year because we don't expect it to be quite as dry. I think it's definitely appropriate to take a look at a crop like this, which doesn't need as much water as other crops to survive. It's fairly low maintenance and low input."
Growers buy the planting seed from Sesaco and Sesaco buys it back at harvest for a predetermined price. Prices are currently ranging from 32 to 37 cents a pound this year, Stichler said.
The key to the Sesaco seeds is the fact their pods are closed, which not only keeps birds and animals out, but also makes the plant easy to harvest by machine. Because the pods are open on most sesame, the seeds can easily fall out during a mechanical harvest and become magnets for birds and wildlife.
"Most of the sesame in the world is harvested by hand because the capsules shatter when you run a machine through it. These are the only varieties that can be machine harvested," Stichler said. "Ray Langham cultivated a sesame variety with a seed capsule that's open slightly at the ends but won't split -- it's not a GMO crop. The seed comes right out when you harvest it. You use a regular combine header like you would for grain sorghum."
Sesaco, an acronym for Sesame Coordinators, handles all the non-dehiscent or closed pod, sesame varieties in the country. The sesame grower buys seed at planting time with a contract price for the harvested seeds. Sesaco processes the seeds at its facility in Hobart, Okla. From there, the seeds make their way to hamburgers or other baked goods, or they are processed into sesame oil. A lot of it is shipped to Japan, where it is used for sesame chicken and as a confectionary.
Stichler said that chewing insects don't like sesame. Both wild and domesticated animals will move through a sesame field on their way to somewhere else, but generally won't bother the sesame, as suggested in his "salesman's talk" about the cows that ate the weeds and left the sesame. It's doesn't take on iron corrosives in high pH soils and is not a pest after harvest.
"It's easy to control with an herbicide," he said. "The stalks mostly decompose anyway. In the old sesame fields, you used to see a lot of dove, and they could clean out a field in no time. They might land on it and flutter their wings, but when the seed doesn't come out they move on."
Stichler said that farmers have mostly used sesame as a "catch" crop, but he recommends using it in a regular rotation with other crops.
"I've been excited ever since I saw it in '88," he said. "Everything else can be burned out by the heat and this will still be green and growing. It's really a remarkable crop.
"I really hope farmers will start using it as a primary crop of and not just as a 'catch' crop. It generally takes about five years for something new to really catch on, and I expect we'll see that with sesame. More people are growing it now, and I expect that number to grow for a few more years."
For more information on growing sesame, visit the Sesaco website at sesaco.com or the American Sesame Growers Association website at sesamegrowers.org.