Last fall, my husband and I were invited to watch a Mennonite family make their fall batch of sorghum syrup. We have enjoyed exploring the Kentucky countryside and had been watching the fields of sorghum cane grow since they were planted in the spring. While there are many varieties of sorghum, some for syrup, some for silage to feed the animals, and some for grain to be milled for a gluten-free flour, this family was growing sorghum for syrup and animal feed.
The fields were gorgeous with their tall stalks, topped by a sea of golden bushy seed tassels. Up close, one can quickly see why sorghum is in the same grass family as corn, oats, and wheat; they all grow in the same way with their long stems, broad leaves, and seed tassels full of kernels of millable grain.
Sorghum cane usually grows from six to ten feet tall and is harvested in September and October. It is very heat tolerant which may explain why it is often the last grass plant standing in local fields and why it is grown mostly in the Southeast.
To harvest the cane, farmers strip off the leaves and remove the seed tassels. Next, the stalks are cut down as close to the ground as possible because that’s where most of the juice is found. The stalks are stacked on carts, and on this farm, the carts are pulled by horses to the grinding shed.
We had been to this farm many times to buy eggs and vegetables but had never been down this lane which goes to the sorghum processing shed. The farmer told us to look for the tall smokestack, and we’d find the family there boiling the syrup
The open shed on the right is where the grinder is located. Here, the sorghum stalks are fed into a set of rollers which presses the juice into a collection basin.
If you have ever been to a historical demonstration of sorghum pressing, you may have seen this same process, only back in the day, a mule was used to provide the energy to rotate the gears which turned the rollers. The farmer fed the cane into the rollers, and the sorghum juice was pressed into a barrel. I found this image online from a publication called Bittersweet.
On the Mennonite farm, a conveyor belt removes the leftover stalks and drops them into another horse-drawn cart
where the sweet tasting scraps are fed to the horses.
There is beauty in the simplicity of this process.
Further down the road, we came to the cooking shed where the thin green sorghum juice is cooked down to a thick syrup.
The uncooked juice is stored in the white tank located on the shelf of on the left. The gray tank, on the right, is the boiler where the steam is created that is used to cook down the syrup in the cooking trays located inside that white door.
On the backside of this building, you can see the boiler on top of the wood-burning furnace. The younger generation of boys is tasked with keeping the fires stoked while the older men tend to the cooking inside.
The steam, much hotter than boiling water, from the boiler, travels through pipes to the cooking room where it runs under a 75-foot maze of metal cooking trays.
Ten gallons of juice will render one gallon of syrup. The steam in the room is created by the nine gallons of water boiled out of the juice. The steam is so thick you can barely see across the room. The sorghum syrup starts out as a thin neon-green liquid loaded with not so tasty chlorophyll. The farmer uses a hoe-like tool to skim off the chlorophyll and other impurities on the liquid’s surface, as it boils up from the juice.
By the time the syrup reaches the end of the maze, it is ready to be filtered and jarred. Here the farmer scrapes the last bit of sweet foam off the syrup so there won’t be white streaks in the jar.
An old farmer I met in Nashville told me when he was growing up, there was a commercial sorghum mill in Crossville, and on the day they were cooking the syrup, all the mothers in town would send their kids to the mill with steel cups to scavenge the foam and bring it home. The mothers would use this gleaned sweetener to make cakes and biscuits. He said the foamy syrup was tasty and free!
The syrup drips through the filter into a barrel and from there is poured into jars of all sizes. It is sold in stores around the county.
Sorghum is enjoying quite a renaissance lately. I see it frequently listed on restaurant menus. You can use it in almost any recipe that calls for honey, molasses, corn syrup, or pure maple syrup. That includes both sweet and savory dishes. It is high in iron, potassium, and calcium and is 100% natural with no chemical additives.
As we were getting ready to leave the farm, a young boy offered me a sorghum seed tassel. He had been picking off the kernels and eating them while we toured. I asked his dad if the seeds were good to eat. He told me, “Don’t eat them, PLANT them,” and he gave me a seed tassel. He instructed me to plant one red seed every six inches in the spring.
Our favorite way to enjoy sorghum is mixed with butter and spread on a biscuit! Check out my biscuit recipe here.
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