The Walking Dead Searches For Sorghum, But What Is It?

Feb 24, 2016

Sorghum
Credit United States Department of Agriculture

If you’re unfamiliar with the show The Walking Dead, zombies (called "walkers" in the show universe) have taken over the landscape. Our cast of gun-toting survivors have been left holed up in a suburban compound surrounded by large walls.

This week, two main characters venture outside the compound on a scavenging mission equipped with a map to nearby agricultural supply stores.  Before they leave, a third character tells them to keep an eye out for sorghum. He says it will likely be untouched and it would make their farming situation “hunky dunky.”

A quick glance at Twitter and a few text messages from friends and family all asked me the same question: What is sorghum and why do our post-apocalyptic heroes -- and sometimes anti-heroes -- need it?

First thing’s first. Sorghum is a grain-producing grass with its origin in Africa.  Worldwide it’s grown as a grain crop. The plant has been bred to grow about four feet tall for most row crop production.

“It’s the fifth most produced grain crop in the world,” says Greg Luce, an adjunct instructor of plant sciences with the University of Missouri Extension. In many regions, such as Africa, India and the Middle East, sorghum is an important food crop used like corn, he says.

“The flour can be used to make breads or flat breads, porridges and cakes,” he says. “It’s a very starchy grain.“

In the U.S., sorghum is grown mostly in dryer, western states with Kansas leading the way. Texas, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma round out to the top five. Missouri comes in 8th.

“In the United States, it’s used a lot for ethanol production and livestock feed,” Luce says. But people do consume it in some forms. Sorghum beer and molasses are two products. Ever been to Lambert’s Café in Sikeston, Mo.? Sorghum molasses is served on the menu there.

Grain sorghum is a resilient plant and can grow with limited resources, hence why zombie survivors without much irrigation or land available would be interested in procuring sorghum seeds, Luce says. The tough crop is heat and drought tolerant and can grow in arid regions.

China and Mexico have been two big export markets for American sorghum.

No word yet on if The Walking Dead characters will start growing the crop for trade. Maybe season seven.