Ancient grain crop makes a comeback in Southeast Virginia

Published 10:20 am Wednesday, September 11, 2013

COURTLAND—While corn and soybeans continue to be important grain crops in Southeast Virginia, some growers are embracing sorghum.

Sorghum, an ancient grain crop, went out of favor when corn prices became more profitable for farmers. But Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., is enticing Virginia farmers to replant the grain. The company uses sorghum for hog feed and is offering price incentives to farmers who grow the plant for them.

“We are the largest producer of hogs in the world, but we don’t grow enough grain in this area,” said David Hull, a Murphy Brown grain buyer. “Every bushel we can grow here and not import from the Midwest or somewhere else—those are dollars that stay here.”

The company is offering farmers 95 percent of the price of corn for sorghum, which looks like a corn stalk with clusters of grains on top. And sorghum, also known as milo, has the natural benefit of requiring much less water than corn.

“Sorghum is much more drought-tolerant than corn, so farmers can expect a more profitable yield,” said Chris Drake, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Southampton County. “It’s a good rotational crop for our area and fits a niche.”

There are also environmental reasons to grow sorghum. “When it’s mowed down, it provides lots of organic material for the soil,” Drake said.

Murphy Brown started encouraging sorghum farming in North Carolina two years ago, and production of the grain increased from 10,000 acres in 2011 to more than 70,000 in 2012. Hull is hoping for similar success in Virginia.

Drake said that Southampton farmers have planted slightly more than 700 acres in sorghum. As long as the price of corn is good and Murphy-Brown is willing to buy the sorghum, he noted, producers will continue to grow it.