The last several weeks I have received numerous telephone calls asking, "What is that plant this is growing out there in the fields with that white flower?"
Yes, most folks are amazed that there is something actually blooming in this severe drought. That drought-resistant plant is actually sesame. If there was some moisture available for the seed to germinate at planting, the crop emerged to a viable stand, although the lack of rain is even stressing sesame.
When the drought of this year resulted in more than 200,000 acres of cotton being failed in the Coastal Bend, other cropping options were considered by local farmers. Some decided to try sesame, a crop traditionally grown in Southwest Texas and the Rolling and High Plains of Texas.
One unique quality about sesame is that is very drought-tolerant, as it only needs 25 percent of the water needed for corn, 33 percent of water needed for grain sorghum and 50 percent of the water needed for cotton. So in a year with below normal rainfall, this surely sounded like a crop that had potential.
Sesame is one of the oldest crops known to humans and there are archeological remnants dating to 5,500 years ago in the Indian subcontinent. Today, Asia produces 65 percent of the sesame with the three largest producers being India, China and Myanmar. Sesame has about 50 percent oil and 25 percent protein.
The oil is one of the most stable vegetable oils because of the high level of antioxidants (sesamin, sesamolin, and sesamol). The flour that remains after oil extraction is almost 50 percent protein, has good effective carbohydrates, and contains water-soluble antioxidants (sesaminol glucosides) that provide added shelf-life to many products.
Locally there were more than 21,000 acres planted in the Coastal Bend of Texas this year, of which 81 percent is expected to be harvested. When the plant stops flowering, it usually takes about 50 to 60 days until harvest can begin. Sesame is ready for harvest when the stalk dries and seed moisture is 6 percent or less.
For best yields, sesame must be harvested as soon as the crop is ready. The present shatter resistance varieties of sesame will hold the seed through six weeks of rain. The current problem is not with the shattering but rather with the deterioration of the plant that may result in lodging.
Sesame is harvested with grain combines and special attention in handling the sesame needs to be taken. Combine settings should be as slow and gentle as possible while still moving the crop through and the air as high as possible without blowing seed out the back.
The speed of harvest depends on the amount of plant mass moving through the combine, the better the crop, the slower the speed to prevent pushing good seed out the back of combine.
So what happens to the sesame after harvest? Some seed is hulled and ends up on top of hamburger buns while a portion of the crop is incorporated into sesame products used in the production of crackers, bread sticks, and cookies. Seed are also exported to Japan, which happens to be the second largest importer of sesame in the world.
Importing countries use sesame in the making of tahini and halvah and some is made into flour and oil.
Sesame oil is used as a salad or cooking oil and in shortening, margarine and soap. It is often considered the "queen" of vegetable oils. The outstanding characteristic of sesame oil is its stability and keeping quality as well as resistance to rancidity.
Also, sesame oil is used in paints, soaps, cosmetics, perfumes and insecticides. Annually, more than 8,000 tons of sesame oil is imported into the United States. A whole seed condiment is the primary use of the sesame grown by producers in the United States. The largest use is on top of buns and in snack foods.
The future of sesame production looks bright and this alternative crop seems to have a real fit here in parts of the Coastal Bend. One thing that we learned last year after Hurricane Dolly is that sesame does not grow in very well in wet soils. In fact, poorly drained soils with standing water will result in sesame plant death.
However, standing water in local fields is not usually a problem here. The world market is growing and China is moving from a major exporter to a significant importer, so I am optimistic that this crop has potential here, especially in the western areas of the Coastal Bend.
For more information on sesame check out this web site: http://www.sesamegrowers.org/index.htm.
Jeffrey Stapper is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at (361) 767-5217.