Research may lead to more N.C. sesame fields

by | Jul 21, 2023

“A little seed with big potential,” is how N.C. State University agricultural researcher Dr. David Suchoff often describes sesame and the possibility of growing more of the crop in North Carolina.

A research field of sesame

After just a few years of research and growing test plots on the state’s research stations, Suchoff feels optimistic about sesame becoming a much more popular crop for Carolina farmers.

“I think if everything works out, the idea would be that it just fits in and helps to diversify their commodity or row crop rotations,” Suchoff said. “So it might not be just corn and soybeans or corn, soybeans and tobacco; it’s corn, sesame and soybeans or corn, sesame, sweet potatoes and soybeans.

“It just [potentially] adds that extra layer of diversity to our systems, which in my opinion, is always a good thing.”

With his test plots, Suchoff has already seen several positive attributes that could make sesame an attractive crop for North Carolina farmers.

Among all of them, he said sesame’s deer resistance is often the thing that farmers bring up first. In addition, sesame seems to grow as well in the Carolinas as it does in states like Oklahoma and Texas where farmers have been growing it for decades.

Sesame is very drought tolerant, thrives in the long, warm growing season and doesn’t seem to need a lot of input and maintenance to get a good stand. Also, the planting and harvesting equipment is the same as what many North Carolina farmers already have. Preliminary greenhouse trials have also shown sesame is resistant to root-knot nematodes, including the guava root-knot nematode.

A closeup of a sesame stem and leaves.

Financial potential is also a positive. Suchoff said that in 2020, sesame sold for about $0.50/lb., and in 2022 it sold for $0.60/lb. Demand is only expected to increase. Texas-based company Sesaco, which is involved with sesame from seed development to ingredient sales, reported that last year there were about 100,000 acres of sesame grown in the U.S., but it believes it would take about 650,000 acres of sesame to meet the demand in America alone. Jared Johnson, the general manager of crop production for the company said the demand for sesame products such as tahini is simply being driven by consumer habits in the U.S.

There are a few specific challenges with sesame that Suchoff says farmers will have to overcome. One is getting the planting depth right. Sesame needs to be planted deeper than most other small seeds. It also can be susceptible to weed problems, and there currently aren’t a lot of herbicides labeled for use on sesame in North Carolina. Nonetheless, there are some options, and more are in the works.

“I think if farmers get the planting depth right and get a good stand, and if they’re able to manage weeds well, they’ve addressed the two major hurdles,” Suchoff said. “At least based off of the yields we were able to obtain in our small plots, I don’t see why we can’t have yields that are comparable, if not sometimes better than what they produce out West.”

Research supported by NCDA&CS
Figuring out the potential of sesame in North Carolina wouldn’t have been possible without financial support from the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s New and Emerging Crops Program. Suchoff said funding from the program made it possible to plant, tend and evaluate the test plots.

Graduate student Marcela Chavez was hired to work on Suchoff’s sesame research with funding from the NCDA&CS New & Emerging Crops Program.

“It’s absolutely critical. We would not have been able to do the work that we did without that program.” Suchoff said. “You know, there really are not many funding opportunities out there – and I’m speaking both from a state perspective and from a national perspective – that allows investigation into these somewhat unknowns. That’s not to say sesame is unknown, but how it performs in North Carolina was unknown. To have those funds available is a game changer for us.

“It’s something that we should be proud of and not all states have. A lot of my colleagues around the nation are envious that we have a program like this that understands the importance of diversifying agricultural systems and realizes that we need to invest in diversity and that we need to continue to look into new opportunities for farmers.”

Pre-research beginnings
The New and Emerging Crops Program is run through NCDA&CS’s Research Stations Division. Even before Suchoff’s grant application and funding award, the division served as a catalyst to explore sesame in the state.

Program coordinator Hunter Barrier, who is based at the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Clinton, spearheaded four small demonstration plots after he got two different inquiries about sesame in April of 2020. A farmer in the Piedmont and a leader at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center both asked Barrier if it was possible to grow substantial crops of sesame in the state.

“We were initially unsure how sesame would perform in North Carolina. Our soil types were correct, but our humidity and rainfall is much higher than traditional sesame growing areas,” Barrier said. “Dr. Paul Ulanch at the N.C. Biotechnology Center organized a meeting with a plant breeding company named Equinom, and from that initial meeting the New and Emerging Crops Program agreed to plant several test demonstration plots to see how the crop would perform. We utilized North Carolina’s network of research stations to plant the first demonstration plots at the Piedmont Research Station, Sandhills Research Station, Horticultural Crops Research Station and Willamsdale Farm Extension and Research Center.”

When Suchoff observed the results, he was impressed with what he saw.

“I don’t think they did a whole lot to it in terms of management. So without really babying the crop you still had a pretty good looking field,” Suchoff said.

As the saying goes, the rest is history. Suchoff’s impression from those first plots led to his grant application, the funding award and his subsequent couple of years of more structured research plots across the state.

Graduate student Marcela Chavez looks at sesame after it has been desiccated or dried for harvesting.

“It’s been a team effort to go from demonstration plots at four research stations in 2020 to an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 acres of sesame in North Carolina in 2023,” Barrier said. “Private industry partners, university faculty and students, extension agents, NCDA regional agronomists and Research Stations personnel have worked together to make sesame production an option for North Carolina farmers.”

This year, as several farmers in the Carolinas have chosen to grow their first acreage of sesame, Suchoff’s research continues. He’ll be looking into expanding agronomic knowledge of the crop and how to manage it in hopes of sharing some best practices with farmers in the near future.