The Row Less Traveled

Sorghum consumer, grower, leader and advocate, Shayne Suppes, is making a name for himself in the food grade sorghum industry. A believer in contracting and on-farm storage, Suppes is equipped to ride out the sometimes tumultuous sorghum markets.

Written by: Jennifer Blackburn

Shayne Suppes took what some may consider an unusual route back to the farm. After a short stint at Fort Hays State University on a football scholarship, he dropped out and went back home, but a desire to see and experience more beyond Kansas wheat fields led him to pursue another passion, working on motorcycles.

In 2003, he went to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix to become a certified mechanic for Harley Davidson. The following seven years were spent in Southern California and Colorado before eventually deciding to return to the family farm in Scott City, Kansas.

“Sometimes you have to go out and try what you think you want to do to find out where you really need to be,” he said.

Shayne was appointed to the United Sorghum Checkoff Program board of directors last year. During his first meeting, sleeve tattoos peeked out from his pressed button-up shirt and sport coat. His hair and beard were long and wavy. He adds to an already extremely diverse set of directors—atypical from traditional commodity boards.

Shayne is part of a new generation of sorghum, and food-grade sorghum has become his passion and key to his farm’s success.

“I had no idea I would be so passionate about food-grade sorghum. That’s what I love,” he said. “Ethanol. It has its place. All the things in the sorghum world have their place, but for me it’s food-grade.”

“I had no idea I would be so passionate about food-grade sorghum. That’s what I love,” he said. “Ethanol. It has its place. All the things in the sorghum world have their place, but for me it’s food-grade.”

Shayne was first exposed to food-grade sorghum through the Sorghum Checkoff’s Leadership Sorghum program. As a member of the inaugural class, Shayne and his classmates spent time at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas, learning about and tasting foods made with sorghum.

“That was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “What I had heard before about food-grade sorghum was the products tasted terrible. Well, that didn’t taste terrible to me, and I was immediately on board.”

This experience, coupled with Shayne’s own personal struggles with stomach issues, led to his decision to grow more food-grade sorghum. Although he’s never been officially tested, through personal trial and error he has seen some relief through eating sorghum.

“I thought about what sorghum can do not only for me, but also how it would help a lot of people if they were exposed to what you can do with sorghum,” he said.

Shayne consistently keeps a box of white sorghum under his kitchen counter and utilizes an Instant Pot® to cook it. He likes mixing it with chicken and spices, treating it much like rice.

Just down the road from Shayne is one of the largest food sorghum ingredient suppliers in the world, Nu Life Market. Through the Leadership Sorghum program, Shayne met the company founder Earl Roemer—a neighbor, by country standards, he never knew.

Both farmers, they have developed a relationship and a passion for food sorghum, and proximity has been advantageous to Shayne’s grain marketing strategy. The main asset to this strategy for Shayne is on-farm storage. He has a capacity of up to 250,000 bushels for sorghum and wheat.

“The number one driver is you have to be able to store it,” Shayne said regarding quality standards. “Not in a bag. Not on a pile. It has to go in a bin.”

Shayne admits there is risk to holding onto grain. He currently has 100,000 bushels of waxy sorghum that was slated to head to China.

“It was all gone,” he said. “It was going to China for baijiu before the tariff hit, but that’s not the fault of anyone. It’s just a patience game as long as the banker is patient, too.”

“In the past few years since China has been buying all of our grain, the price has been going down each year,” he said. “This all has to happen. The tariffs have to happen. This will get better, and I believe that.”

The grain Shayne is holding in the bin is called waxy sorghum, which is unique because it has 100 percent Amylopectin compared to non-waxy sorghum that has 70 percent Amylopectin and 30 percent Amylose. What does that mean exactly?

With 100 percent Amylopectin, waxy sorghum can minimize the use of gums and starches, it improves moisture retention, improves freeze-thaw stability and reduces moisture migration among other benefits, causing the grain to gain traction in domestic ingredient uses outside of baijiu production in China.

“It’s what the customer wants,” Shayne said. “If sorghum is a super grain, then [waxy sorghum] is maybe super duper.”

Shayne said some producers worry about the challenges of growing food-grade sorghum. Yield drag is one of the largest concerns, but his waxy sorghum made 135 bushels per acre—a respectable dryland yield.

“The question is always yield drag, and there isn’t any,” Shayne said. “This food-grade stuff outdoes [traditional hybrids], so I’m just trying to do my part and grow what the consumer wants because I feel like here in Kansas we have the potential to supply a lot more than we do.”

Shayne says he wants the food-grade sorghum market to be exposed but not ruined, and long-term contracting is the direction he wants to go.

“We’re in the heart of sorghum country here, and if we can just get lined up with marketing and contracts—I love contracts—my world would be amazing,” he said.

Shayne said going the distance to acquire contracts for his grain remains his focus and priority with each growing season.

“I always thought it was neat that a corn farmer could say, ‘I grow for Kellogg’s,’” he said. “For me, that’s getting to the Super Bowl if I can say I grow for a company like Kellogg’s.

“I always thought it was neat that a corn farmer could say, ‘I grow for Kellogg’s,’” he said. “For me, that’s getting to the Super Bowl if I can say I grow for a company like Kellogg’s.”

“It feels like you get to be a part of something, and I can really make a difference and make money at the same time.”

Even though food-grade markets typically offer a premium, he said it is not about the money for him.

“I want to set up a sustainable market, and I want to make a difference,” he said.

Since Shayne has returned to the farm, today, he and his father devote 65 percent of their 5,000 sorghum acres to food-grade sorghum. Getting his dad to shift his mindset to growing more sorghum, and specifically what the consumer wants, was more challenging, he said.

“For me it was an immediate decision,” he said. “For my dad it was hard. It’s like breaking up with an old girlfriend and finding a new one.”

While Shayne’s dad, Ron, was extremely involved in the wheat industry and both crops remain a staple on their farm, Shayne is paving his own unique path through sorghum leadership. His path to the national checkoff board through Leadership Sorghum is a testament to the program, he said.

He feels the new generation of sorghum producers offer a unique perspective to the industry, and he wants to show the advantages to new approaches to grain marketing with on-farm storage being at the center.

“I recently had a guy call me for an aquaculture contract where he wanted 20,000 bushels a month for fish,” Shayne said. “Can you imagine—fish? The markets are there. We don’t have enough to store and supply them right now.”

Shayne said being engaged in the process is critical to changing the marketing landscape for sorghum going forward.

“In the big picture, I cannot take care of one of these markets alone,” he said. “You have to think outside the box, and you cannot just take it to the elevator, turn away, and never worry about it again.”

Shayne said sorghum is challenging because the industry is so small, but it’s like a secret society ready to be exposed. Until then, he intends to continue growing the crop he fell in love with and work diligently to meet consumer needs with food-grade sorghum.

“Sorghum will always be grown on this farm and will always be number one unless something drastically hits the fan,” he said. “I don’t get scared off by all the social pressures that I hear about why farmers won’t grow sorghum. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m a sorghum farmer, and that’s the way it’ll always be.”