Oct 1, 2018
When Ali Baba uttered the magical phrase “Open sesame” in the book “One Thousand and One Nights,” which would later inspire the Disney cartoon “Aladdin,” he opened a cave that held many treasures. The same is true for the crop the author based his magic words upon.
Sesame is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world; it’s known for growing in areas with sparse moisture for the last 7,500 years. It was first introduced to the United States in the 1930s and has become a major commodity for Oklahoma and Texas. In northwest Oklahoma it has become particularly popular and, more importantly, high yielding, according to Sesaco Production Manager Jared Johnson.
“In the Cherokee, Oklahoma, area we have about 15,000 acres growing. As far as my territory, which is basically I-40 and north up into Kansas, there’s about 75,000 acres. For the whole of Oklahoma there are roughly about 95,000 to 100,000 acres planted.”
Sesaco has been around since 1978 and is the sole leader in genetic development, processing and marketing of U.S. sesame crops. Sesaco developed the only non-dehiscent, or ND, sesame seed varieties in the world. These varieties make it possible to harvest mechanically rather than by hand. Before the ND varieties, the sesame pods would shatter when harvested by combine and hardly any of crops would make it out of the field. The other 99 percent of sesame grown outside of the U.S. that is not of the ND variety is still manually harvested.
'Leeping' into sesame production
Growers like Cale Leeper, of Dacoma, Oklahoma, have turned to sesame as an alternative to milo or soybeans. This is Leeper’s second year growing sesame and he has 500 acres he is preparing to harvest in the coming months.
“I wanted to have a summer crop rotation and we have been heavy milo planters in the past,” he explained. “Milo is great but it has problems such as sugar cane aphids. Plus you have to get your milo planted super early to get around some of the aphid issues where as sesame can be planted later—all the way through June, if needed.”
Johnson says a lot of producers start small with sesame and gradually work their way up.
“A lot of times they start by double cropping and then go from 60 or 100 acres to 500 or 600 and end up splitting it out and doing a couple hundred primary and a couple hundred double crop.”
But a lot of farmers also get into sesame because another crop failed.
“It’s a wonderful plan B if your wheat gets hailed out,” Leeper said. “That might be just how you get started and the next year you decide to do a full season.”
Another aspect of the crop Leeper appreciates is that it's less input intensive.
“It doesn’t take near as much fertilizer as milo or soybeans so the money you’ve got wrapped into it isn’t as much.”
And since sesame is not the first dinner choice for pests, herbicides and pesticides are not usually needed. Other than weeds, there really is not much to manage in a field of sesame. And unlike milo and some other crops, sesame is not a common snack for wildlife.
“If deer or pigs are eating your sesame, it should have been harvested a long time ago,” Johnson joked.
But perhaps the most persuading aspect of sesame is its water usage. Deep taproots make use of moisture far below what other crops can reach.
“It’s also an arid crop so if you can get 9 inches of rainfall, you’ve got yourself a crop,” Leeper said. “I don’t know of anything else that can do that. It just makes sense to plant sesame in a place where you only get 20 to 25 inches of rainfall a year. It’s just a great fit for our climate.”
Leeper also sees added benefits with the contract price. Sesaco offers acreage contracts to growers with a set price at which the farmer agrees to sell their crop back to Sesaco. It gives the producer the knowledge of what the crop will be worth. Production managers like Johnson oversee their territory, set up contracts and work with growers like Leeper to make sure the fields are coming along well.
“When you sign the contract you are agreeing to get the seed from Sesaco, plant it and sell it back to us when harvested,” Johnson said. “We contract by acres, not pounds. They agree to the set price and let’s say they want to grow 100 acres, once they sign the contract they are locked in to grow a certain percentage of the acres they contracted. It’s a big selling point for us.”
But there are also premiums for bringing in good seed just like any other commodity.
“Being a good farmer gets rewarded,” Leeper added.
Small seed, big demand
Due to health-driven trends, the sesame market has grown tremendously. Apart from sesame seed buns, sesame is also used in tahini, which is a main ingredient in hummus, a Levantine dip that has been around since the 13th century and is now popular in the health food world. Johnson said the sesame seed is being incorporated in new recipes all the time such as salad dressing and nutrition bars. It has even become trendy as a make-up and health product additive. However, Sesaco mostly grows sesame to appease the Japanese market, where it is commonly made into oil and used in their cuisine.
“I don’t think we could ever produce enough to satisfy the Japanese market,” Johnson said. “But with the U.S. market growing so fast, we’re shooting for 65 million pounds as our goal this year. We’d have to contract around 200,000 acres as a company to accomplish that feat. If we were to meet the whole demand of the U.S. we’d have to grow 600,000 acres, so there’s definitely a demand for this crop.”
The more Sesaco can grow in bulk, the more marketable the seed is and the steadier the supply. According to Johnson, Sesaco’s end goal would be to produce every pound of sesame for the confectionary—or highest grade—market in Japan. Japan really sets the market prices since they are the major importer but it is also controlled by other commodity prices.
“If milo is sitting at six bucks, you are going to have to pump up the price of sesame,” Leeper explained. “They’ve got to stay competitive with the surrounding crops.”
And if the viable prices do not tempt farmers to experiment with sesame, positive reviews from other producers just might.
“I’d tell anyone who is considering planting sesame to go for it,” Leeper said. “I think we are really going to be happy we switched so much of our milo over to sesame this year.”
Just like the sesame capsules open to reveal numerous seeds, more and more producers are opening their minds to alternative crops with big rewards.