Last September, my husband and I were invited to watch a Mennonite family make sorghum syrup from stalks of sorghum we saw growing in a field all summer in Kentucky. The seeds were planted in April and the stalks were harvested from late August through September. While there are many varieties of sorghum grown, some for syrup, some for silage (animal feed), and still others for grain to be milled for flour, this family was growing their sorghum for syrup and silage.
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 long stems, broad leaves, and seed tassels full of kernels of millable grain.
Sorghum cane usually grows from six to ten feet tall. It is exceptionally heat-tolerant, which may explain why it is often the last grass still green and standing in fields in the Southeast in September.
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 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 dirt road to the sorghum processing shed. Our farmer friend told us to head for the tall smokestack, and there we would find the men boiling down the syrup.
We passed an open shed on the right where the stalk grinder is located. Here, the sorghum stalks are fed into a set of rollers that press out the neon-colored juice.
If you have ever been to a historical demonstration of a sorghum pressing, you may have seen this same process, only back in the day, a mule was used to provide energy to pull the crank that rotated the rollers in the press. As the mule walked in a circle, sorghum juice poured from the press into a collection barrel. I found this image in a publication called Bittersweet.
In Nashville, you can see a live demonstration of this process at the Music and Molasses Arts and Crafts Festival held annually in October at the Tennessee Agricultural Museum.
At the Mennonite farm, a diesel-powered conveyor belt moves the waste from the pressed stalks to a cart.
where the sweet-tasting scraps are enjoyed by the workhorses, who transport it to the compost heap.
There is beauty in the simplicity of this process.
Further down the road, we came to the cooking shed where the thin neon-green sorghum juice is cooked down to a thick syrup.
The pre-cooked juice is stored in the white tank located on the shelf on the left. The gray tank, on the right, is the boiler where steam is created to generate heat to cook down the syrup in the cooking pans located inside the white door.
On the backside of the building, you can see the wood-burning furnace that heats the water in the boiler to create steam. The younger generation of boys is tasked with keeping the fires stoked while the older men, in the building on the right, boil down the juice.
The steam, much hotter than boiling water, 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 foam 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 as an ingredient on many 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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