The race to produce renewable fuel crops in California is looking like back to the future.

Grain sorghum, a crop that once was planted on almost 500,000 acres in the state, but has now almost disappeared, could make a comeback as a feedstock for ethanol and high-grade biofuel production.

About 100 growers showed up for presentations by two of California’s most respected agricultural companies and a global sorghum seed producer. Organizers hope to convince growers to plant as many as 30,000 acres of grain sorghum in the San Joaquin Valley this year to feed the Central Valley’s corn-fed ethanol plants.

Wilbur-Ellis Co., one of California’s leading marketers and distributors of agricultural products; JD Heiskell and Company, a 126-year-old grain and commodity trading business based in Tulare, Calif., and Chromatin, Inc., headquartered in New Deal, Texas, a sorghum seed supplier for more than 40 years with products planted to more than 3 million acres, believe grain sorghum can make a California comeback. Bet on a free lunch — some growers share their beliefs.

According to Roger Price, Heiskell vice president, it could be a huge grain sorghum comeback — 54 million bushels worth or 380,000 acres of production. It likely will never be that big. Fifty-four million bushels is the amount of grain corn California’s three existing ethanol plants utilize to produce about 150 million gallons of ethanol per year. Virtually all the corn is imported from the Midwest.

(See related: Photo gallery: Grain sorghum ready for California comeback)

Using a 56-pound bushel weight and an average yield of 4 tons per acre, it would take 380,000 million acres of grain sorghum production to replace all that corn.

Okay, that’s far-fetched, yet, according to the organizers of the information meeting, those ethanol plants will buy all the grain sorghum California producers can grow.

“Grain sorghum can be used as a drop-in replacement 100 percent for corn. There is no downside to grain sorghum in ethanol production,” Price told growers at the Modesto, Calif., gathering. With the price of corn and reports of a shortage of corn for ethanol, the upside of grain sorghum is shooting up.

The persistent drought has made corn so scarce that 20 of the nation’s 211 ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year.

The U.S. has the capacity to produce 14.7 billion gallons of ethanol from 211 refineries.

California is the nation’s largest ethanol consuming state using more than 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol annually.

California’s grain sorghum production peaked in 1967 when the acreage hit 451,000 acres. It fell to 9,000 by 1989 when USDA/NASS quit reporting acreage. 12,000 acres were planted in 2000, and it peaked at 47,000 in 2008, but the majority of that was for silage. It is no longer reported by NASS.