In between seasons of corn, peanut, and cotton, North Florida farmers were interested in growing a rotation crop that could withstand the wilting heat of summer and be harvested by machine.
So, since 2011, University of Florida researchers have been experimenting with growing the tiny seeds you find on top of hamburger buns or garnishing salads – sesame – as a viable, money-making crop.
"Aside from drought tolerance, sesame offers other benefits including nematode resistance, pollinator diversity, and the potential to be an economically beneficial rotational crop in North Florida, where crop options are sometimes limited, said Diane Rowland, a crop physiologist with the UF Agronomy Department.
Rowland, UF/IFAS Extension Suwannee County Agriculture Agent Elena Toro, along with graduate students Annie Couch and Anastasia Vaccaro, have continued researching sesame in trials at the Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra and the UF/IFAS Extension Suwannee Valley Agricultural Center in Live Oak. The trials have helped Extension agents and growers become familiar with different sesame varieties, planting configurations, irrigation needs, and nutrient partitioning.
By 2013, there were nearly 1,000 acres of commercial sesame planted by 15 growers in the Suwannee Valley. After seeing the potential of the crop in UF/IFAS research trials since 2011, producers in the Live Oak area began growing sesame, with total commercial acreage reaching nearly 6,000 acres in 2014. The average yields for the two varieties grown were between 720 and 800 pounds per acre, at a contract price of 42 to 50 cents a pound.
In the U.S., sesame has traditionally been grown in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, because of its renowned drought tolerance. However, in the last five years, the devastating level of drought in the southwest has dropped yields, leading to exploring other U.S. production regions, including Florida. Sesame grown in the U.S. is from seed exclusively from the Sesaco Corporation out of Hobart, Oklahoma. The company has developed the only non-shattering sesame varieties in the world, which allows for sesame to be mechanically harvested.
"Even today, 99 percent of the sesame grown in the world is still harvested manually, because traditional sesame capsules shatter during the drying stage before harvest, Rowland said. "There are still many questions to answer when it comes to sesame production, particularly in regards to weed control and possible disease pressure. But there is a potential for sesame production in Florida, particularly in areas where rotational options are limited.