What do Big Bird, McDonald’s, tales of Arabian Nights and Texas agriculture all have in common? You guessed it: sesame! Sesame is an ancient crop that dates back to more than 4,000 years ago, but is actually fairly new to the United States. Almost all U.S. production of sesame occurs is Texas and Oklahoma, but states like Georgia, Kansas and Arkansas are also hopping on the sesame bandwagon. Production of sesame in the U.S. is limited to the south primarily due to the lack of mechanically harvestable cultivars suited to other climates.
In 2008, sesame became difficult for U.S. food companies to obtain due to skyrocketing commodity prices. McDonald’s, for one, struggled to source the nutty flavored, tear-shaped bits of grain for the bun that frames its Big Mac sandwich. In addition to decorating your favorite burger buns, sesame is also processed into cooking oils, shortening, and some margarines. It is a key flavor ingredient in many Chinese dishes and is known for having a longer shelf life than other oils. Sesame is also found in many meals and flours used in baking breads and crackers. This is a credit to the presence of an antioxidant called sesamol. Non-food uses for sesame oil include ingredients in soaps, paints, cosmetics, perfumes, pharmaceuticals and insecticides. Once processed, the remains of the sesame are typically used in a variety of livestock feeds.
When sesame started becoming more expensive to import from other countries, farmers in the U.S. did what farmers do – they found a way to grow sesame on their own soil. Trial and error lead to the discovery that sesame would grow better in the southern U.S. because of the warmer temperatures and drier soils. Therefore, most of the commercial production of sesame happens in Texas. Since production costs per acre are more reasonable that many other more common crops, the profit margin is slightly higher, too. Like cotton and sorghum, sesame is also a "low-input" crop. This means it does not need a great deal of water, something that vegetable crops, corn and wheat need regularly and in large quantities. making the sesame crop a popular rotation crop for farmers who harvest other crops.
We all know how volatile and inconsistent the weather in Texas can be, so it makes sense for a crop farmer to have a backup crop to rely on when a dry season is on the horizon. In this case, a sesame crop is an answered prayer. Having another crop that has good market value and can grow well during drought could benefit many Texas farmers. Although there are an abundance of uses for sesame, production in the U.S. is still limited. Harvesting sesame is not easy. Sesame seeds are incredibly small and that makes it nearly impossible for the same large combine that is used to harvest cotton or corn to harvest sesame. It can be done, but a lot of experience behind the wheel of a combine is required, along with quite a bit of patience.
Sesame seed is relatively delicate and can easily be damaged during harvest. This damage can affect seed viability and oil quality. In addition, broken seed reduces crop grade and consequently affects overall yield and profit margins so proper harvesting is paramount.
There are many benefits of growing sesame in Texas. According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, profit margins can range from $100 per acre to $650 per acre depending on seed
variety, seeding rates, and row spacing, among other factors. Unlike other crops, sesame is not favored by deer and feral hogs which makes it perfect to grow in Texas.
See? Big Bird and Texas agriculture have more in common than you thought! Texas is a massive chunk of land that is diverse, prosperous and bountiful with opportunity. Texas agriculture is also incredibly diverse, prosperous and beaming with opportunity. Growing sesame, a seed mostly known for being on top of burger buns and Chinese food, is soon to take the agriculture industry in the U.S. by storm. Sesame is increasingly popular in the southern states so my guess is that once Texas farmers lay out the sesame crop blueprint, farmers across the states will follow suit and soon enough the seeds on your buns will be a home-grown product of the United States. To learn more about sesame production in the U.S., visit https://agrilife.org/texasrowcrops