Sorghum. Picture: THINKSTOCK
Sorghum. Picture: THINKSTOCK

GRAIN SA expected the development this year of South Africa’s first major bio-ethanol production facility to use sorghum would help reverse the fortunes of a declining agricultural sector, its CEO, Jannie de Villiers, said recently.

The agricultural sector has been pushing the government to finalise the regulatory framework enabling independent players to get into the generation of energy, including electricity and biofuels.

People in agriculture believe small-scale farmers would benefit because of the potential for off-take contracts that would guarantee them steady income and encourage them to grow feedstock. According to Mr de Villiers, the biofuels industry would offer unique opportunities for sorghum production, thus encouraging more farmers to increase hectares for its production. As a result, the grain farmers’ body was expecting a steady increase in sorghum production once the biofuel industry settles, with farmers wanting to take advantage of higher prices.

Grain sorghum is utilised by the ethanol industry because it yields roughly the same amount of ethanol per bushel as maize.

Maize is not allowed to be used for biofuel in South Africa for fear of fuelling price volatility and leading to food supply instability, which could affect poorer citizens. Maize is South Africa’s staple food.

Experts say that as new-generation ethanol processes are studied and improved, sorghum’s role may continue to expand.

The production of sorghum in South Africa varies from 100,000 tons to 180,000 tons a year, compared to 3-million tons of wheat and 11.5-million tons of maize a year.

The Free State and Mpumalanga are the largest contributors by province to the area planted to sorghum and to sorghum production.

The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform last year acquired 848 farms totalling 882,238ha, with 10,000ha going to the Cradock biofuels project for sorghum and sugar beet in the Eastern Cape’s Chris Hani district municipality.

According to Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, at least 4,428 women and 3,756 youths have benefited from the land distributed to new farmers, with priority given to vulnerable groups in and around Cradock.

Sorghum — the fifth most important cereal crop grown in the world — is used for food as grain, in sorghum syrup and "sorghum molasses", fodder for animal feed, and in the production of alcoholic beverages. Now biofuels would be an additional marketable option for South Africa’s farmers.

Most varieties are drought-and heat-tolerant and are especially important in arid regions, where the grain is one of the staples for poor and rural people.

According to the Southern African Grain Laboratory, wheat is by far the biggest winter cereal crop planted in South Africa.

Other winter crops are barley, for malting purposes, and canola.

However, maize has the largest crop size of the different crops, followed by wheat, then soya beans, sunflower seed, malting barley, sorghum, groundnuts, canola and dry beans.