“There’s no place like home” grown sorghum

July 29, 2018 |

Sorghum sights are set high with EPA approval and recent genetic improvements

The next time they re-make the Wizard of Oz movie, you might just see sorghum growing in the fields along the yellow brick road, thanks to sorghum’s big win last week when the U.S. EPA opened up pathways for sorghum oil to become renewable fuels. This home-grown feedstock has had its challenges, but a huge one – not being EPA approved for biofuel pathways – can now be crossed off the list, making it one step closer to ‘Wizard of Oz’ status.

Sorghum is a grass grown in many places and regions around the world, but also is increasingly being grown in states like Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. In the past, it’s been used mostly as grain feed for animals and humans alike, but lately has been getting some attention for its viability in the biofuels, specifically biodiesel, market. Researchers are finding new ways to get more sorghum per acre and other improvements with the feedstock, including genetic modification. In fact, as reported in The Digest in October 2017, sorghum was reaching a somewhat stardom status with a huge $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But one thing still stood in its way…the RFS. Sorghum oil just couldn’t meet RFS requirements and wasn’t approved as a pathway for renewable fuels…until now. The EPA found that GHG emissions were low enough when sorghum fuel is burned to meet RFS requirements. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the final pathway alongside Sens. Jerry Moran and Deb Fisher, Rep. Roger Marshall, the National Sorghum Producers, and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

According to the statement released by the EPA, Wheeler said this move means more than having another biofuel and that “Today’s approval sets the stage for more homegrown fuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard and adds diversity to our mix of biofuels in the U.S. This is a win for American sorghum farmers and biofuel producers alike.”

“USDA welcomes this decision by EPA that biofuel made from sorghum oil qualifies for advanced biofuel and biomass-based diesel designation under the RFS,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said. “This decision recognizes the environmental benefits of home-grown renewable energy and will create new markets for agricultural commodities.”

Why the big deal? This newly approved feedstock is estimated to produce around 21 million gallons providing flexibility in meeting volume standards of the RFS program. It also adds diversity to the biofuel mix in the country.

Kansas…there’s no place like home

So who will benefit the most by this new acceptance by the EPA? Most likely Kansas since it produces the most sorghum of any state in the U.S. and government representatives from what is also known as the sunflower state were pretty darn excited about the EPA approval for sorghum. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“Kansas farmers are hurting – low commodity prices and falling farm revenue have made it increasingly difficult for producers to make ends meet,” said Senator Jerry Moran (KS). “Approving the pathway is long past due, and I applaud Administrator Wheeler for acting quickly to finalize the pathway after assuming leadership of the agency. It is critical for EPA to recognize the challenges faced by farmers and ranchers and to make certain it pursues biofuel policies that will benefit rural America.”

“This announcement is big for our producers back home. This pathway has been a top issue for our office since I came to Washington. Kansas is the top sorghum producing state in the country; I am elated the EPA has finalized the long-awaited biofuels pathway for Grain Sorghum Oil. This pathway is crucial to not only our sorghum producers, but also our biofuels plants, and our rural economy. Farmers can use all the relief they can get in the midst of growing uncertainty in global markets,” said Representative Roger Marshal (KS-1).

“Kansas produces more sorghum than any other state in the nation,” said Kansas Farm Bureau President Rich Felts. “The opportunity to add value to those bushels is critical to our farmers and could not be more timely as we seek any and all methods to balance the books in a tough agricultural climate.”

National Sorghum Producers, an organization that represents U.S. sorghum producers, were also pretty stoked about the news. “This pathway for sorghum oil reaches far beyond the farmer,” said Tom Willis, NSP board director and CEO of Conestoga Energy. “This is an avenue for creating jobs in rural America we so desperately need, and it helps provide energy security from a renewable water-conserving source.”

According to NSP, “in addition to the nine ethanol producers already extracting oil from sorghum, several other facilities will now be able to purchase and use sorghum. The pathway also makes possible additional investments in fuel infrastructure in the Sorghum Belt.”

Bottom Line

This super sorghum stardom news is even more exciting considering the headway made in the last 6 or 8 months by researchers and companies that are delving into sorghum and making new strides.

Just last week, as reported in The Digest, Indian researchers found that sorghum could be used in existing sugarcane mills to produce ethanol and co-generated power without having to make any adaptations, allowing farmers and mills to switch to the more water efficient crop.

In May, New York based Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory found that a simple genetic modification can triple the grain number of sorghum. In December 2017, University of Florida researchers found three sorghum varieties that could produce 1,000 gallons per acre making its future as a biofuel feedstock even brighter, as reported in The Digest.

Sorghum is expected to become even more mainstream in the U.S. thanks to the trade war with China. As reported in The Digest in April, China imposed a 179% duty on U.S. sorghum imports which sent sorghum prices falling in the U.S. when sorghum farmers all of a sudden were left with tons of sorghum with little China-based demand. The good news is it has given ethanol producers in states like Kansas and others a great discounted deal for the feedstock.

With the latest EPA approval opening up sorghum as a pathway for biofuels, there is no end in sight for sorghum along the yellow brick road.


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