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French farmer defies drought with sustainable crop

STORY: You're looking at pictures of a wheat field and sorghum field taken on the same day, from the same region in France.

But while the soil of harvested wheat fields is bone dry, due to the extreme heat of 2022, on the sorghum plot, the leaves are green and the plants carry a full ear of grains.

The sorghum fields belong to Eudes Couttes, who's been beating the heat with the drought-tolerant plant.

"The cultivation of sorghum is attractive because it brings about a new cultivation, a new way of thinking about agriculture, moving more towards a sustainable agriculture that preserves future resources.”

Location: Saint-Escobille, France

Sorghum is a cereal that is little-known in Europe but used widely in other parts of the world and can be an ingredient for gluten-free baking, couscous or even beer.

Coutte says the advantages of sorghum are that in much of France it does not need to be irrigated, requires no pesticides and needs only a third of the fertilizer that wheat requires.

“It's not a miracle solution but it is a solution which, among many others, makes it possible to improve things, to consume less plant-protection products, to consume less fertilizer and above all preserve groundwater and water resources.”

But sorghum isn’t totally immune to drought.

Coutte expects to harvest three to four tons per hectare this year, compared to five or six during a normal year.

But he says the fact that this yield requires no irrigation is a "competitive advantage," as drought is felt across France, with restrictions on access to water.

To make his farm more sustainable, Coutte has invested in his own stone mill.

It turns part of his crop into gluten-free sorghum flour.

The rest is sold as grains, which can be cooked and eaten like lentils.

And more farmers are turning to this crop.

French sorghum production grew to nearly 440,000 tons in 2021, up from 270,000 tons in 2016. That's according farm ministry data.

But gluten-free sorghum is still a niche market in Europe.

EU data show that only about a quarter of the crop produced across the continent goes to human consumption.

The rest goes to animal feed.

Coutte is working hard to find new markets for their crop.

He plans to work with local partners to develop sorghum beer, vegetarian steaks and other products in the coming years.

“Thinking about tomorrow's agriculture, and how we can cultivate and how we can produce food without massive water use, what are the possibilities, what are the crops that we can grow today, and what we will have to do in the future, to preserve water resources."