Why Nate Blum, CEO, Sorghum United sings all praises for sorghum and millets.

Nate Blum, the Chief Executive Officer, Sorghum United. Photo by Kimuri Mwangi

Sorghum and millets are known for their drought tolerance capability, especially in areas where rain is not adequate. But it seems that they have been forgotten or underrated in some parts of the world. 

Nate Blum, the Chief Executive Officer of Sorghum United recently visited Kenya and our writer Kimuri Mwangi got a chance to interview him on the importance of these grains.

Welcome to Kenya and let’s start by knowing who is Sorghum United.

Sorghum United which is an international NGO. We focus on trying to find regional food systems solutions to hunger, malnutrition, environmental and economic sustainability and we do this within the context of sorghum and other small millets, small grains that we find are highly nutritive through research that has been published around the world. 

White sorghum. Photo by Kilimo News

How important are sorghum and millets?

So they’re great in human diets and they can also be used for fuel and fibre applications as well from an environmental standpoint are excellent for soil health, water conservation, carbon sequestration and biodiversity in that pollinators love those habitats as do birds. So what we do is we connect people all along the points of the value chain within sorghum and millets and we try to provide them with the tools that can empower them to assess the situations and the concerns on the ground and then help them to come up with solutions that make sense within those regional populations. This is around solutions similar to providing more value to farmers through placing processing which is approximate to the production of grain which we feel can increase the profits for farmers, decrease supply lines, and create entrepreneurial opportunities and jobs while at the same time providing increased improved health outcomes within communities through these food products using these grains.

We say there’s room on the plate for everybody, so we like maize, we like wheat, we like rice we like soy, we like all of these grains but what happens is sorghum and millets are very overlooked. I call them forgotten heritage grains actually and so nobody’s doing the advocacy for these grains on the global scale outside of the United Nations in the great work they’ve done at the FAO. Other great work is being done in places like India and parts of Africa. We are very thankful for the work that these governments and these organizations have done. But outside those areas, the message at the International Village largely hasn’t gained a ton of traction though we are seeing some growth and so our organization’s job is to take that message and make ourselves advocates for these grains which sorely need advocates in places around the world.

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What’s your personal experience with sorghum and millets?

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska America a fourth-generation farmer and on our farm we raised sorghum or as we call it in North America Milo, here in Kenya by the way I understand the name is “mtama”. I grew up growing these grains but I didn’t know very much about them. 10 years ago I was serving as the Director of Agricultural Policy for a member of the United States Congress and started doing more work directly again with farmers at the policy level, which is when I became aware of these grains. And then a few years later after that role, there was an opportunity to work as the Executive Director for the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Boardrd which is a state organization working specifically for sorghum farmers. And so as I learned more about the nutritive value, the environmental benefits and really how we can provide opportunities for diversification within cropping systems and economic opportunities through mitigation of local value-added systems which can complement the existing commodity marketing systems, I saw that there are some real opportunities to find some solutions to some of the biggest problems that we’re facing around the world and it’s couched in sorghum and millets. So, my personal experience is the more I’ve Learned about these grains the more excited I get. I don’t think they’re a silver bullet, I don’t think they’re the only solution but I certainly think that they are a part of a solution within larger complex systems both in regional food security as well as diversification on the farm.  

What do you feel are the challenges for sorghum and other millets?

The challenges for sorghum and millets internationally are the same wherever you go and that’s how Sorghum United got started. I was attending a conference in France and I listened to my counterparts from Europe talk about their challenges and I realized we’ve got the same problems. The global industry is not that large and so through that, we came together and decided to start finding some ways to work together even though we might be competitors in other areas.

  And so really the most common problem for our sorghum and millets farmers is the right market access. Right now, 80% of the world’s supply of sorghum is purchased by China. 93% of US sorghum is purchased by China. We love it when they’re buying it but it also means that typically prices can be somewhat controlled at those volumes. Meanwhile, we have a very promising I would say, is a good way to describe the processing community and infrastructure for sorghum and millets. Most of our processors and we have dozens of processors within our network all over the globe, but most of them were small scale you know. And even at the governmental level when you’re talking about governments working with small businesses, incubators and things like this, the work is being done but it’s small scale and needs to be scaled up mechanization needs to be developed and this is the biggest challenge.

 So, one is its great if we grow a bunch of grain where we are going to sell it for a value and two, how are we going to process it efficiently so that we can look at it in the same types of volumes that we see with other grains, those are the biggest challenges.

There are policy recommendations that we make when we speak with policy makers whether they’re in Asia or Africa or America or Europe. But really when it comes down to markets, I’m a farm kid and I can tell you farmers will grow a crop if it’s marketable, if they can make a profit doing so. It’s wonderful to provide them with incentives for sustainability and climate-smart crops, that’s fantastic but what they need are markets.

Is value addition the way to go?

I love a good sorghum beer; sorghum whiskey is fantastic also if you get a chance at sorghum whiskey that’s fine. Actually, the most widely drank spirit in the entire world is something called Baijiu and that’s what the Chinese make with sorghum and it’s a cultural touchdown in China. When you go to China, any official dinner you’re having you’re getting shots of Baijiu all night long whether you want it or not. So that market, the distillation market, the fermentation market, those are fantastic but they’re not the only markets. 

So, from a food standpoint, like in my house we use sorghum and other millets just the same way we would rice. Not that we’ve completely replaced rice, we eat rice too and there is nothing wrong with that. But maybe one meal a week instead of using rice, we’ll use sorghum or millet as a peel-off or in some other way we’ll use them in a soup for example or as flour as it’s a gluten-free non-GMO flour. So, you mix it in potato starch or you buy an all-purpose sort of flour that already has these things mixed and some xanthan gum which then serves as the binder to replace gluten. We use it just like we would for any regular wheat recipe, there’s no special recipe to it. So that’s how we use it there at home in the food space and that’s some of the value-added things.

 As far as market development is concerned, global snack foods for humans are a very large and fast-growing market whether it’s pops sorghum, roasted sorghum or some sort of a granola-type bar cookie or whatever it might be. Those are becoming very popular in the pet food market that’s the fastest growing market in the United States, the pet food market for sorghum in particular. Then of course we can make ethanol from sorghum just as efficiently as we can corn, you don’t get as much of the oil biproduct but from an efficiency standpoint, the yields are very similar.

And then from a fiber standpoint, especially if you’re looking at forage sorghum which are the very tall varieties of sorghum with the small head versus grain sorghum which is a shorter variety with the large head, you know the stocks can be used to extract sugars. So, you can use it just like you would sugarcane but from a fibre standpoint you can use it also to make things like temporary building materials or you can make clothing out of it or any other thing you would make from a fibrous plant. 

There’s even a startup company where I live in Nebraska called Pro Materials and they’ve patented a process to make carbon fibre, renewable carbon fibre out of grain Sorghum. The wonderful thing about it is not only is it renewable and sustainable but it costs them something like two US dollars and thirty cents to make a pound of carbon fibre out of the grain sorghum. If they were to make that same pound of carbon fibre out of petroleum products traditionally how it’s done, it’s something like five dollars and thirty cents a pound. So, as they scale up, imagine what that does for the costs of your vehicles and anything else carbon fibre. Right from the cost of your vehicles, your bicycles, your cell phone, and your laptop. All of these things we take for granted that use carbon fibre, we can decrease drastically in a sustainable way one of the key input costs.

So it’s a very versatile grain and can do quite a lot of different things just like any other grain quite frankly. 

What would you say is the contribution of sorghum and other millets to food security?

Sorghum and other millets in the food systems here in Africa in particular, the reality is that these grains were originally grown here. They were cultivated first in places like Africa, Mesopotamia and Asia and have just largely been forgotten. Meanwhile, we have developed overdependence on other grains. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with other grains, your kinds of wheat of the world, your maize of the world etc. but these crops are not as well suited say to dry arid climates where rainfall might be variable. 

One thing that I think we can all agree on is there have been significant challenges within global food supply chains in the last four to five years. One which was very close was Covid 19 and then the conflict in Ukraine between Ukraine and Russia. 

It is unfortunate in my opinion that we have people in parts of the world who are starving as a result of the disruptions of global wheat supply chains when at the same time they could be sustainably growing these grains within their environments for regional food security. This is one of the things that we feel to empower populations to grow and to thrive, we need to be thinking about food independence because really, true independence for a community and individuals or a nation begins with food independence. There’s always a place for international trade obviously, so it’s either it’s never this or that but there is a need to reimagine how we do regional security for the sake of our populations around the world.

Where do you see sorghum and millets in the next ten years?

I think the opportunities and potential for sorghums and millets in the next five to ten years are going be unrecognizable to where we could even imagine today and I don’t say that just as an optimist. I say that because I’ve been working within the policy and agriculture industry for the last 15 years or more and I grew up on the farm. 

And I can tell you just anecdotally how many more products and how many more news articles and how many more bloggers how many more chefs just in the last few years have started to utilize sorghum and millets, promote sorghum and millets and talk about the health benefits of sorghum and millets. Just the other day one of the most popular celebrity chefs in the United States, a woman named Reed Drummond a Pioneer Woman, her blog added an article specifically on sorghum, that’s a big deal. It doesn’t seem like much because right, it’s a blog post on somebody’s website but it’s a big deal because that gets to a whole brand-new audience.

And so we’re already seeing, whether it’s more pet foods, Gerber in the US now has a line of baby food using sorghum cheerios, candy bars and all sorts of other products are using sorghum and millets within their formulations and that’s the important key when you’re looking at markets.

As an entrepreneur, by the way, if they’re not creating new products and hoping that consumers adopt them, they’re tweaking formulations for existing products and then adding value saying this is sustainable, this is healthy, this is non-GMO in which you could capture more value also from consumers so this is an important distinction to make.

So where do I see it going? It’s been like a snowball rolling downhill. When I started, this industry seemed like it was very very small and solely catered to the export market, but over the years I’ve seen this snowball grow and grow and grow and every year that we continue to see success the bigger that ball gets.

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