What Role Does Sorghum Play In Mitigating The Impact Of Climate Change On Global Food Security? CEO Nate Blum Tells All
Nate Blum serves as the Chief Executive Officer of BlüMilo and Sorghum United.
Sorghum United is an international NGO serving to advance education and market development for sorghum and adjacent small grains.
Nate is passionate about the mission of Sorghum United due to the solutions for food security, nutrition, environmental sustainability, and rural economic disparity that these ancient grains represent. He is an expert on grain sorghum production and marketing, with a focus on value-added agriculture processing for sorghum-based products.
Blum has represented the sorghum and millets industry in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Vietnam, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Jordan, Great Britain, Scotland, Australia, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Senegal, India, Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia, and the United Nations FAO. He has also worked with international stakeholders regarding the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, hosting an Independent Food Systems Summit (August 2021). He’s also served as the Executive Director of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board and the Nebraska Sorghum Producers Association from 2019 to 2023, including the USDA Grains, Feed, and Oilseeds Ag Trade Advisory Committee (ATAC). The ATAC advised trade policy to the office of the US Trade Representative.
He is an Alumnus of the University of Nebraska (Class of 2019), the Nebraska Leadership, Education, Agriculture, Development (LEAD) Program (Class XXXVI), and served as the Vice president of the Nebraska LEAD Alumni Association. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska, enjoys volunteering for local non-profits, and organizing community events in his free time.
Read on to learn about Nate and Sorghum United’s thoughtful efforts in bringing sorghum and millet grains to the forefront when it comes to global food security, agricultural sustainability, and more.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up on a fourth-generation family farm in East Central Nebraska. Growing up in the 1980s during the Farm Crisis was tough. As a result, my cousins and I were encouraged to find work off the farm. Seeing the economic challenges of small and medium-sized farms truly formed a passion for creating opportunities for more value for agricultural products.
My career has been defined by public service and steady professional growth. I began by working overnights in an emergency room while pursuing my studies at the University of Nebraska during the day (while raising a family). After graduating with a degree in psychology, I found work first in Financial Services and then with the Representative from the First Congressional District of Nebraska. I served for five years in his office and experienced exponential development year after year. By the time I chose to accept the post of Executive Director of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board and the Nebraska Sorghum Producers Association, I held the title of Director of Outreach and Agriculture Policy.
During my four years working for Nebraska’s sorghum farmers, the organization met several measures of success. Chief among them was a 130% increase in planted sorghum acres in the state within three years. We were also able, through digital media, to create global brand recognition within the sorghum and millet industry. This would lay the groundwork for the formation of Sorghum United.
By the time Sorghum United, as an informal coalition, began preparing for the International Year of Millets in 2022, we had nearly one hundred stakeholders around the globe. These stakeholders represented every point within the value chain in the industry and are located on every continent, except Antarctica. After the opening ceremony of the International Year of Millets in Rome, our leadership team decided to begin the formalization of Sorghum United as a recognized Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).
The mission of Sorghum United is to provide producer and consumer education to promote market development for small climate-smart grains such as sorghum and millet. Additionally, the group provides much-needed connectivity within the global industry, allowing for the exchange of ideas and knowledge without geographic or political barriers. We are a grassroots organization that receives no taxpayer funding and chooses not to solicit grants. Rather, we focus on economic self-sustainability through entrepreneurial approaches to our mission, such as the creation of the Sorgho Squad book series.
Sorghum United believes that sorghum and millet represent an opportunity to promote economic and environmental sustainability to the global agri-food systems and for conventional and small-holder farmers locally. Additionally, these grains offer regional solutions regarding hunger and malnutrition in even the driest of conditions. Sorghum United promotes a value-over-volume approach to agriculture and empowers entrepreneurs to work directly with farmers to source grain and create economic opportunities in regional value chain systems.
What was the inspiration for the development of the company Sorghum United?
Sorghum United members are inspired by hope. In particular, the hope that sorghum and millets provide a part of the solution for food security, nutrition, and economic and environmental sustainability.
While other grains will always have a place in diets and cropping systems, the current agricultural paradigm globally encourages monoculture systems. This lack of diversity in farm operations results in soil degradation, water use inefficiencies, and a stunning decrease in biodiversity.
As nutritive solutions, these grains have been well documented to be higher than peer alternatives in vitamins and minerals. However, much of the world has forgotten them in favor of other grains. This comes at the expense of optimal health outcomes in both the developing world, as well as in first-world countries. Moreover, the drought-resistant nature of sorghum and millet means that they can provide self-sustainable food, fuel, and fiber solutions for areas experiencing food insecurity caused by a warming climate.
What was one thing you did that exceeded your expectations when you began as CEO of Sorghum United?
Most surprising was the rapid growth of our stakeholder network. In the beginning, we understood that many great people were doing great things in the sorghum and millet value chain globally. However, what was less well understood was the lack of connectivity between the different parts of that value chain. Making simple connections through our organizations has allowed for a grassroots level of connection, which facilitates not only commerce but the free and open exchange of ideas and concepts, which has transcended geographic barriers and geopolitical complications.
Is there a current challenge for you as CEO currently? How would you approach it?
If one isn’t consistently facing challenges, one is not positioning oneself for personal and professional growth.
Our present challenges are similar to those faced by any entrepreneur. Sorghum United, while technically able to solicit donations from our global industry partners and apply for grants, is instead taking a different organizational path. As an organization that continually promotes economic self-sustainability through entrepreneurial enterprise and the growth of free markets, we feel we must structure our funding mechanisms by the same ideals.
Thus, we are in what I call the ‘phase one’ portion of our growth. At this point, we’ve completed the technical issues around organizational formation and are focused in the near term on the development of our own fiscally sustainable ventures.
One such venture is the Sorgho Squad graphic novel series. These books are intended for children between the ages of nine to thirteen and have gained traction globally with educators and parents who are concerned about nutrition and sustainability. I describe the book as “Indiana Jones meets Captain Planet.” They are entertaining, exciting, and educational. The first three chapters of the Sorgho Squad series are available globally on Amazon and at www.sorghosquad.com.
The Sorgho Squad books also represent our efforts for markets and awareness development in the consumer sector. We are presently also working on another venture that we believe will be of incredible benefit to producers, processors, researchers, and more. That project should be ready for announcement in early 2024.
It is important to Sorghum United that we find private-sector solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.
Policy and governmental support for climate-smart grains are important, but the creation of value-added markets will always be a greater motivation for small-holder and conventional farmers.
How does sorghum play a key role in mitigating the impact of climate change on global food security?
Sorghum is considered a climate-smart grain for several reasons. The crop uses approximately one-third of the water of comparable grains. In the presence of drought, sorghum will go dormant when other crops will die. When moisture is reintroduced, the stalk will green again and continue to produce a harvestable yield.
Sorghum plays a key role in soil health as well. The large root biomass of sorghum extends as far as six feet into the soil. This breaks up the compaction layer common in the soil, allowing crops planted in rotation following sorghum to access more water and nutrients. The larger root biomass also means that more biology is left in the soil, enriching the soil microbiome. A study by Texas A&M University in 2022 also suggests that sorghum is an ideal crop for carbon sequestration because the root system can capture more carbon and bury it deeper for longer than peer crops.
Planting sorghum in cropping systems is also beneficial for biodiversity. Pollinators and birds are drawn to these grains. Many of your readers may associate these grains already with birdseed, as that is a common application. The thick canopy provides protection and habitat for birds and other small animals as well. Adding another crop to existing cropping systems also breaks up pest and disease cycles.
The resilience of sorghum and millet makes these ancient grains ideal also in addressing global food security. Many food-scarce regions are also faced with water scarcity and intense heat. For example, the nation of India is pushing strongly for the reintroduction of these grains in dietary systems due to recent failures of wheat and maize. Global supply chain breakdowns experienced as a result of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine and restrictions on some commodity exports by traditionally prominent supplier nations are also forcing countries to reevaluate their dependence upon wheat, rice, and maize.
Sorghum can be grown in regions that are food insecure and provide healthy outcomes for local populations. Aside from the superior nutritive values for sorghum and millets, over two hundred independently published and peer-reviewed scientific papers have confirmed benefits such as anti-inflammatory effects, improved cardiac health, anti-diabetic benefits, and more. In addition, two papers published by the Nebraska Food for Health Center in the journal Nature in 2022 noted that sorghum helps to rebalance the human gut microbiome.
How do you think the economy will benefit from this, specifically the arid and semi-arid regions?
Sorghum United strongly promotes the creation and strengthening of local and regional value chains. Locating value-added processing for food, fuel, and fiber products proximately to the production of grains such as sorghum and millet decreases supply chains, provides farmers with economic opportunities through direct contracting (mitigating commodity marketing risk), and empowers entrepreneurs to create jobs and capture additional prosperity for local communities.
For arid and semi-arid regions, sorghum and millet are of great importance in this regard, thanks to the drought-resistant qualities previously mentioned.
Share more about sorghum cultivation practices and its recent advancements to sustainable agriculture.
There are several different varieties of sorghum. And different varieties have different end-use applications. For example, white or cream-colored sorghums are ideal for food products because of the light color of flour they produce, similar to wheat. Red sorghums tend to be best for fuel and industrial applications. High-waxy sorghums are ideal for fermentation in alcoholic beverages.
The grain is typically planted in 15 to 30-inch rows. Nitrogen usage is similar to corn. In recent years, herbicide-resistant sorghum varieties have become readily available on the market, which allows farmers to better manage their fields and improve yields. In the Northern Plains of Nebraska, yields on dry land acres can average between 90 and 130 bushels per acre and 150 to 200+ bushels per acre under irrigation. All sorghum on the market is non-GMO, produced through traditional breeding methods. The use of CRISPR technology has the potential to provide additional genomic breakthroughs in the future.
In 2022, the USDA awarded the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, the national taxpayer-funded sorghum organization, with a $65 million grant. The grant is meant to fund research that will quantify the climate-smart attributes of sorghum, such as the sequestration of carbon in the soil discussed earlier.
What does success mean to you? What are your rules for success?
Success without integrity is not success. Long-lasting and optimal outcomes can only come through mutually beneficial collaborations that lift all parties up and empower them to do more.
Accountability is important to achieving success, and as such, the person who aims to be successful must welcome criticism and value the ideas of others.
As an organization, Sorghum United is a long way from what we would consider ‘success.’ Yes. We have had some successes, such as the launch of the Sorgho Squad series, but these represent minor skirmishes in a larger battle. We will not consider our jobs to be done until markets for food, fuel, and fiber products globally are more greatly diversified, including sorghum and millet.
I emphasize the term “diversify” with intention. Sorghum United does not advocate for replacing grains such as corn, wheat, and rice with sorghum and millet. On the contrary, to do so would only replace one monoculture cropping system with another. Rather, we advocate that there is plenty of room on the plate for everyone. And that a failure to diversify these markets endangers the health and sustainability of our human population and environmental systems.
When global food security and access to nutritious foods are in abundance for all populations, Sorghum United will consider the effort a success. When agricultural systems experience a return to diverse cropping systems that encourage biodiversity and resource conservation, Sorghum United will consider the effort a success. When atmospheric carbon concentrations begin to decrease through improved sequestration in the soil, Sorghum United will consider the effort a success.
How do you handle comparisons between Sorghum United’s innovation and that of other companies?
I tend to avoid comparisons. We are our organization. Facing unique challenges, opportunities, and variables. Other organizations are unique in their situations as well. To paraphrase Albert Einstein,
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you will forever be disappointed in your fish.”
At Sorghum United, we thrive on innovation. We feel our entire approach as a non-taxpayer-funded global entity specifically designed to tackle some of the world’s gravest challenges is, by itself, innovative. We also appreciate learning about the innovations of others. There are always things that we can learn from understanding the driving forces and thought processing supporting innovation. There may not be comparisons, but there are most definitely lessons.
The Fox Magazine is all about inspiration, what/who inspires you the most?
It may sound naïve, but my motivation is simple: To leave the world better than I found it. Everything I do, personally and professionally, is somehow tied to that overarching theme. I’m certainly not perfect, and most assuredly, I have not always lived up to that ideal, but it remains the goal.
Professionally, I describe our work in terms of the story of Sisyphus. If you are unfamiliar, I will provide a brief recap. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a mortal who angered the gods. As penance, we were tasked with rolling a boulder uphill for all eternity. If we are to place ourselves in the proverbial shoes of Sisyphus, we can ascertain that there were only two things that he could know with surety. First, Sisyphus knew that he could never know how close he was to the top of the hill. Or even the reprieve of a slight plateau. Secondly, Sisyphus knew that the moment he was to give up and let go was the moment in which he would have to begin his task again.
In the promotion of sorghum and millets, Sorghum United identifies with Sisyphus. We do not know when that “breakthrough” moment will come. All we know is that if we stop rolling the boulder, we will have to begin again. Unlike Sisyphus, though, as our organizations continue to grow, the task becomes exponentially lighter. We are an organization now of hundreds of Sisyphus’. And we’re always looking for more.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
I read a lot of history and nonfiction. I find the lessons taught through the experiences of others to be fascinating, applicable, and valuable. That may not be surprising. But knowing that may make this tidbit even more so.
I am a tremendously huge comic book nerd. Amazing Spiderman, in particular. In fact, after thirty-one years of collecting, I finally completed full runs of The Amazing Spiderman (1962-Current) and Ultimate Spiderman. Once a month, I still go to my local comic book store to buy the latest issue. It is then read and added to the collection. The Amazing Spiderman is the sweet dessert after the heavy meal of the materials I read on a more regular basis.
What is your favorite or original innovation-related motto, quote, or words to live by?
I love quotes. Picking one as a favorite doesn’t seem fair. But, if I had to choose one, I must lift up the astounding Sir Richard Branson on leadership and the development of people. He said,
“Train people so well that they could go anywhere. Treat them so well that they never want to leave.”
There are few things so gratifying in this world as knowing that you helped someone else to succeed.