Sorghum kernels, now being cultivated in an alternative use, will soon be giving us a tool to find the ultimate chickpea.
Here’s how the bargain at Dick’s is supposed to work: A farmer will plant the germ of a cereal grain, its own seed of choice. Then, using seed-bin science, the wheat grains in his or her seed box will be reduced from 1,000 ounces to 50. If this individual seed can’t be shared with others, so be it. But even if the seed is shared, at that point the shrubs and trees in the seed box will have been allowed to go to seed. Fertilize, mulch, weed out, watch the trees grow and then harvest and use it all, get it all off of your hands. Check your seeds, there’s a candidate for your product.
Researchers, however, have an entirely different idea. They want to grow sorghum kernels. Earlier this month, this tiny grain of matter was grown as a new target in research aimed at finding the ultimate chickpea.
Pesky gram-sized seed must be scalable, to grow to a point where it can survive on its own. Here, the researchers intentionally mucked up the stuff by mixing it with other varieties of sorghum. Tastier, right?
When I get back to the shabby startup office on the first floor of a Midtown Manhattan building, I retrieve a few shells from the bottom of my bag. “You’re so cute,” one pal says. “Really?” I ask. “You’re gorgeous,” another greets me. How would I have known?
Eagerly, I read between the lines. I recognize from Chinese recipes the characteristics of the sorghum kernels that my friends are choosing. And what do I think they liked? I don’t know, but what surprised me the most was the item that was always missing.
Only two notes that got bigger: One said, “Do your sorghum not look like breadcrumbs?” And the other read, “I know my sorghum is the best, but most of my sorghum just tastes like cardboard.”
“I really thought these were full-grown seeds,” the other says, mocking a bit.
“So just a few strands of sorghum at the time,” I say.
“Yeah, so exactly!” He replies. “This seems so easy.”
Sounds easy, and with true science, there might be an answer, but I simply can’t decipher it. When my former co-worker, Erica, is chatting away in another corner, I ask her, “What do you think?” She laughs, before insisting, “You should, you know.”
Back upstairs, I take a few seeds, sprinkle them over the mat on my kitchen table and simply count up the number of grains. The final count is about eight. It does not look too much like breadcrumbs, does it? I consult an image researcher at a local museum who is also a science enthusiast. I ask him, “How is this pretty?” We both laugh, but he doesn’t know.
Will the scientists’ experiment pay off? After all, the champions of the task are being kept by the the US Department of Agriculture, and it has hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the USDA. They have known for a long time that a big cash donation could help grow something. Will the challenge pay off? Some analysts are not sure. Right now, its yield, at the scale of breeding, is only expected to reach one or two eggs an acre. Is that enough to field test the whole crop?
One of the researchers is similarly doubtful, saying, “I hope it would be easy to grow sorghum at the far ends of the planet where it wouldn’t be hand-pollinated.”
I’m reassured that the sorghum could be grown close to home, and I could be eating sorghum kernels soon, but, you know, we have until 2026 to find the best. Then there will be more questions. Is it too long? Do I just have too much respect for ice cream to be asked to love sorghum? That is one question I definitely do not have the answer to.