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Sweet IDEA? / April 07, 2014
Virginia State University is seeking $809,092 from the Virginia Tobacco Commission so an assistant professor of alternative crops, Dr. Laban Rutto, can help Southside Virginia farmers tap into an emerging health craze by growing sweet sorghum.

VSU will match that grant with nearly $2.6 million of its money.

In the application that Rutto filed for Tobacco Commission’s research and development funding, he said, “There is a market for sorghum syrup in the U.S. that we believe will continue to grow as people become more health conscious. This is because sorghum syrup is both a sweetener and an excellent source of minerals and antioxidants.”

Sorghum is also more hardy than corn, said Rutto, making it potentially easier to grow in Southside Virginia.

VSU will team with Ecology MIR-Group to find a sweet sorghum grass variety sustainable in Virginia’s climate. The goal is to then develop both a primary and a secondary market for the food-grade syrup and byproducts gotten from the grass.

For several years, Ecology MIR-Group has been researching ways to turn sweet sorghum grass into biofuels. Rutto’s study will look into ways to extract the syrup from the grass, and then use the residual byproduct – forage and bagasse (stems, leaves and fibrous materials left after juice is extracted from sorghum stalks) - for biofuel production or some alternative commodity.

“The project will benefit the Southside region through income diversification, job creation, and by acting as a catalyst for other industries,” Rutto said in his VTC application.

Rutto’s application did not identify where in Southside he would begin studying the grass. Instead, “We propose to expand ongoing sweet sorghum variety testing to include selected Southside locations.”

Unlike the chickpea study Virginia State University agronomist Harbans Bhardwaj’s began in 2013, which coincided with the relocation of the Sabra Hummus processing plant to South Chesterfield, Rutto’s studied is not designed to fill an existing commercial need. Rutto acknowledged in his application to the VTC his project will lay the groundwork for future commercial scale production and that “market research for primary and secondary products will be necessary as part of the commercialization effort.”

Rutto said before there is commercial scale production of the sweet sorghum in this area, he will, through study, identify varieties of the grass that can fully mature during Virginia’s typical growing season, and identify pest and disease that could affect the plant’s growth.

In addition to identifying varieties most suited to Southside Virginia conditions, Rutto expects that this project will make recommendations for sustainable production of sweet sorghum for syrup in the Southside. His postharvest research and development will include information on the best way to handle and process sorghum canes, processing, packaging and handling of syrup, and uses for sorghum grass by-products.

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