By Shalin Pinkerton
Farming can be a volatile business, and profitability has become even more uncertain in today’s farm economy. To offset this uncertainty, the Sorghum Checkoff is working to provide regional market opportunities by connecting growers with buyers and strategically targeting end-users with the highest probability for success.
“We recognize the volatility associated with agricultural production and are working to increase regional market growth and awareness,” said Doug Bice, Sorghum Checkoff market development director.
Sorghum Checkoff staff are located across the U.S. with the purpose of identifying, developing and providing expertise to domestic marketplaces.
So, who are these staff members with boots on the ground? Three regionally based staff include Brent Crafton, regional director for the Mid-South; Shelee Padgett, regional director for Texas; and Zach Simon, regional marketing director for Kansas. These individuals work with Bice to create markets for sorghum farmers and have been charged with the responsibility of enhancing marketplace intelligence.
“We want farmers to be confident in potential markets for sorghum,” Padgett said. “There are a lot of attributes and traits that really make sorghum stand apart from others, and it’s our job to help the farmer capitalize on those traits.”
One value-added market in particular has provided direct and premium contract options for growers in the eastern United States. Fieldale Farms Corporation located in Baldwin, Georgia, has established a broiler poultry nutrition program that includes sorghum. Regional Director Brent Crafton has been targeting potential opportunities in this region and working closely with Fieldale Farms. Crafton said Fieldale uses about 20,000 tons of formulated feed each week, which includes as much local sorghum available, and they will pay a premium of 105-110 percent over local corn.
Crafton determines the potential bushel volumes and seeks out a producer network within the region to support the market with acres.
“The more comfortable producers become with not only the growing side but also the contract side, we see more acres in a certain area, and with more supply comes more inclusion of sorghum into the end product,” Crafton said. “It is a gradual increase, but examples like Fieldale Farms are a good win for farmers.”
Identifying regional assets and limitations is another important aspect of regional development.
“Every region is unique in terms of strengths and weaknesses,” said Simon. “Our role is to understand those and work the appropriate angle to the producer’s advantage but also in a way that is beneficial for the end-user.”
Whether this value-added market opportunity is with an ethanol plant, a feed yard or a more specialized market like pet food use, the Sorghum Checkoff strives to reveal opportunities that will boost the farmer’s bottom line. Locking in a price with direct contracting provides assurance and can partially shield the producer from the ever-fluctuating commodity market.
“Times are tough. Let’s be honest,” Simon said. “Any market is a good market whether it be large or small, especially if the farmer receives a higher value and more certainty.”
The pet food industry, pork production, quail hunting plantations, ethanol, consumer food and dairy and beef cattle production are also being explored regionally.
Many factors such as the production style of the region, grain storage options, annual precipitation, soil type, competing markets, industry support and other logistics contribute to developing a certain market.
With the help of the state organizations, the Sorghum Checkoff gathers data, analyzes findings and determines the next steps.
“State organizations play a key role in developing market opportunities,” Padgett said. “The state executives live and breathe this every day, and they can tell you exactly what’s going on in each of these markets at any time and place because they are truly our grassroots arm of what’s happening in each respective region of the Sorghum Belt.”
The Sorghum Checkoff’s vision is to initiate pivotal relationships beneficial to sorghum farmers and influence decisions to use more sorghum throughout valuable marketplaces. By networking and providing resources and information, the Checkoff aims to connect farmers with outlets for their sorghum.
“There are always opportunities out there producers don’t know about or consider, and some of those are more closely tied to traditional markets. Then there are those more non-traditional opportunities whether it be through an elevator that has contracts directly with companies or a company who would prefer to work directly with the farmer,” Crafton said. “We hope to work together across all regions to provide assurance in the sorghum industry and advance valuable networks.”
To learn more about sorghum markets and regional development visit https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/market-opportunities/markets-overview/.
Do you prefer quality or quantity? Maybe we don’t have to choose.
Each factor is important when attempting to build a network of ambassadors to further a cause. The Sorghum Checkoff strives to create and foster a multitude of partnerships to tell the sorghum story through third-party representatives, and today, the sorghum industry has a sizable team of passionate ambassadors who work to promote sorghum. These ambassadors believe in the brand, the product and the farmers who raise it.
A Cooperative Branding Program was launched in 2013 in hopes of expanding sorghum’s reputation as a highly desirable crop for farmers and a preferred ingredient or raw material for a variety of products. This program leverages investments to promote sorghum across industry segments. Through the program, the Sorghum Checkoff is partnering with companies wishing to promote sorghum utilizing the Sorghum: The Smart Choice® branding program on a number of platforms. To date, 10 cooperators have partnered with the Sorghum Checkoff, including Dustin Finkel, founder and CEO of Ancient Ingrained Snack Co., through its sorghum product, Ka-Pop!.
Finkel’s product line is relatively new, but it has seen explosive growth since its establishment in April 2018. The crispy sorghum snack chips called Ka-Pop! can now be found in over 800 stores nationwide, and Finkel expects even greater success in 2019.
“It seems like it has been big win after big win, which just shows the power of sorghum and the power of our products and the team we have,” Finkel said. “We have just been accepted into the Kraft Heinz Springboard incubator program, and there are hundreds and hundreds of brands that apply from which only five are selected.”
The select startups of the Kraft Heinz incubator program are invited to a 16-week class, which will provide resources to help build their business. They will each receive $50,000 in funding and a chance to earn up to $50,000 more during the program. Ka-Pop! was also selected by 7-Eleven for their Next Up program to bring more health and wellness products to their stores, and all along the way Finkel and his team are riding for the sorghum brand. The partnership between Finkel’s company and the Sorghum Checkoff is one he values highly, and sorghum is an ingredient he believes fits with Ka-Pop!’s mission to bring authenticity, simplicity and joy to the marketplace.
“This partnership is one of the best things we have going for our brand,” Finkel said. “I love talking about sorghum to consumers because its benefits validate our brand and what we stand for, but it also continues to bring awareness to the great work of the Sorghum Checkoff and how sorghum can be applied in so many different ways.”
“I love the mutually beneficial relationship we have where the Sorghum Checkoff gives us credibility while we are doing our part to promote sorghum as a versatile, nutritious product with a place in our everyday lives,” he said.
Aside from the Cooperative Branding Program where the Checkoff supports companies to help market sorghum products, other advocates exist through professional influencer roles. Sharon Palmer, registered dietitian nutritionist, is also known as the Plant-Powered Dietitian and has been an advocate for sorghum since the day she first learned of its nutritional attributes. Palmer is also passionate about the sustainability of sorghum as she just completed her master’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems.
“I include sorghum in everything I do—my writing, my speaking, my cooking. I don’t even think about it. It’s just there,” Palmer said. “The cross section of nutrition and sustainability is important, as well.”
Palmer has been a long-time friend of the Sorghum Checkoff and has helped with cooking demonstrations at large food conferences across the U.S over the years. She recently wrote an article published in Oprah Magazine, which has a monthly circulation of 2.4 million, where she highlighted the value of sorghum nutritionally but also environmentally. Palmer has developed several sorghum recipes for SimplySorghum.com and plans to continue creating new ones.
“I would like to see sorghum everywhere,” she said. “As a dietitian, I work to teach consumers how to actually use these healthful ingredients in their diets, and I think dietitians are a really great ally [for sorghum] to have.”
Sorghum Checkoff Market Development Director Doug Bice works very closely with these particular brand ambassadors and related their success back to producers by emphasizing the premium offered to growers who sell their sorghum into a high-value market such as consumer food.
“The more of their products we get on the shelves and the more consumers look to buy sorghum, the more sorghum will be utilized,” he said. “On average, food-grade sorghum demands a $1.75 premium over sorghum sold on the open market for feed and biofuel.”
“Our partners’ success equals more success and market diversity for our sorghum farmers.”
After almost five years of service, Carlton Bridgeforth has resigned from the Sorghum Checkoff board of directors to serve the industry in a new position. Bridgeforth is a fifth generation farmer from Tanner, Alabama, where he is a junior partner with his brother and cousin. His father and uncle are the senior partners of Bridgeforth Farms, and together, they grow grain sorghum, cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans and canola.
Bridgeforth was a graduate of Leadership Sorghum Class II in 2015. It was around this time when he was nominated by the National Black Growers Council and appointed by former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to the Sorghum Checkoff board of directors.
“I have a lot of appreciation and respect for the National Black Growers Council because they helped me get my start in the industry and played a big part in where I am today,” Bridgeforth said.
In 2017, Bridgeforth was elected as treasurer by fellow board members.
“I’m incredibly proud and very happy that fiscal responsibility and being good stewards of the monetary part of our job was taken into account for return on investment throughout my time on the board,” he said, “but especially during the formation of the new strategic plan.”
Bridgeforth’s finance degree from Morehouse College and time spent on Wall Street before returning to the family farm provided a unique perspective to the board of directors.
“Carlton brought an exceptional skillset to the board, and we appreciate all of his advocacy on behalf of sorghum producers,” said Florentino Lopez, Sorghum Checkoff executive director. “We are grateful for his unwavering service and are certain he will continue to represent Team Sorghum well.”
Bridgeforth moved to Washington, D.C., with his wife Christina and took a position with the National Association of Conservation Districts. Recently, he began a new career venture as Professional Staff for the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture where he will continue to act as a voice for farmers. Christina, a third-grade teacher, has always whole-heartedly supported Carlton through his participation in organizations like the Sorghum Checkoff, he said. As he exits the board, Bridgeforth expressed gratitude for his time working on behalf of producers through the Sorghum Checkoff.
“Sorghum has the best national board, association and staff I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.” Bridgeforth said. “To the board and staff, it’s been an honor to serve. I wish you the best of luck, and I’ll be rooting for you from wherever I am.”
These stories originally appeared in the Spring 2019 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine as the Sorghum Checkoff Newsletter.