Ga. farmers harvest commercial sesame crop
by Dahlia Allen
December 15, 2013 10:55 PM | 529 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DUBLIN — Three thousand years ago, farmers in India grew sesame. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson saw potential in growing sesame in the southeastern United States. Now, Laurens County farmers are harvesting their first commercial sesame crop.

“We’re learning a lot on how to produce it,” said, Jimmy Brewer of Southland Seed Company. He and the other planters are encouraged by what they have learned thus far.

Sesame grows in dry weather, requires a low up-front investment, helps control nematodes that attack other crops — cotton, peanuts and soybeans — builds the soil, does not attract wild hogs and deer and is not genetically modified.

“It’s the most drought-tolerant crop that can be grown commercially in Georgia because of its tremendous root system,” Brewer said. “When a sesame plant is a foot tall, the root is two feet deep.”

A sesame plant, which resembles okra, will grow to a height of about six feet, he said. The flower, appearing before the seed pod and similar in appearance to a lily, is a particular favorite of black bumble bees. “You’ve never seen so many bees,” Brewer said.

The high-protein seeds are popular as a healthful snack food, and the oil is in demand particularly for Asian cuisine.

Historically, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri have produced most of the sesame grown in the United States; however, in a single year, the total number of acres in the Southeast jumped from 3,500 to 35,000, according to an article appearing in June in Growing Georgia.

The article went on to say farmers are protected because buyers contract with farmers by the acre rather than by the pound as with peanuts and other crops.

Laurens County farmers planted 700 acres of sesame this year. By comparison, they planted 931 acres of peanuts (down from 3,397 acres of peanuts planted in 2012), said Raymond Joyce, Laurens County extension agent.

“May would be the earliest you could plant sesame, and the cut-off date is July 20,” Brewer said. The summer’s heavy rain interfered with planting. Brewer planted 188 of his 300 acres in June. All of the sesame crops should be harvested by mid-December.

Local crops have produced around 1,200 pounds of sesame seeds per acre, Brewer said, adding that the current rate of 42 cents per pound for high quality seeds translates into slightly over $500 per acre for an investment of about $200 per acre.

Two to five pounds of sesame seeds — the amount a gallon plastic bag will hold and costing $8 to $10 — will plant an acre. On the other hand, a farmer could have an investment of $100 per acre in corn, Brewer said.

A sesame crop matures in 90 days and dries down to harvest in another 30 days. It has no natural enemies such as the boll weevil. Nor do wild animals feed on it.

“Deer and wild hogs don’t bother it. You can see where they’ve eaten all into the soybeans, but sesame fields don’t even have any animal tracks,” Brewer said.

Because sesame enriches the soil where it grows, it increases the yield of the cotton crops when rotated with cotton.

Brewer, who is in the seed business, planted only sesame. He operates a buying point for sesame seed grown by other farmers. “Another plus is that you know when you plant, the contractor will buy all you grow,” he said.

At his storage facility in Dudley, Brewer tests for quality by pressing oil from seed samples with an indicator stick that reacts with color. “If it’d dark blue, it’s the best quality,” he said.

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