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North Carolina farmers turn to sesame, an ancient crop that is popular again

This October 2016 photo shows a sesame field in Alabama that is ready for harvest.
Katie Nichols, Alabama Extension
via Flickr
This October 2016 photo shows a sesame field in Alabama that is ready for harvest.

Sesame has been a staple in kitchens around the world for centuries. But North Carolina farmers are taking a new interest in the tiny seeds, thanks to a program run by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

It may be an ancient crop, but sesame is hot right now thanks to the growing popularity of hummus and tahini, a type of paste. Sesame oils are also used to make cosmetics.

Most American sesame is grown in the West and Midwest, but North Carolina State University Assistant Professor David Suchoff said the grain can thrive in the sandy soils of Eastern North Carolina and the Sandhills. He’s working with farmers in 16 counties who are giving sesame a try.

"We see that it fits very well into our traditional row cropping systems, meaning it can be put in rotation with corn and soybeans and sweet potatoes and so on,” Suchoff said. “It doesn't really require farmers to purchase any new equipment. So, if they're already producing small grains, they have everything they need to grow and harvest this crop."

Sesame is the latest crop in NCDA&CS’ New Emerging Crops Program, which encourages farmers to diversify their crop rotations. Past efforts have focused on hemp, hops, and purple carrots.

“We put the first sesame test plots on our research stations in 2020,” said Hunter Barrier, superintendent of the state agricultural research station in Clinton. “We had zero acres of commercial production. And I think this year, we're going to be somewhere between three and 5,000 acres."

Suchoff said sesame is resistant to the root-knot nematode, an invasive worm that devastates many crops. Barrier added that deer, which eat soybeans and other row crops, don’t have a taste for it. It also doesn’t require much water to thrive.

“We’re always looking for new crop opportunities, both from a financial stability point and because the weather and climate are changing,” Barrier said. “To be able to have crops that are more drought tolerant that a yield and have a reasonable cost of production, we always need to be looking out for that.”

Bradley George is WUNC's AM reporter. A North Carolina native, his public radio career has taken him to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and most recently WUSF in Tampa. While there, he reported on the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of the station's Murrow award winning coverage of the 2020 election. Along the way, he has reported for NPR, Marketplace, The Takeaway, and the BBC World Service. Bradley is a graduate of Guilford College, where he majored in Theatre and German.