(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 13, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
October, 1930-- A rural Kentucky family tends the evaporation pan, boiling sorghum juice to make sorghum molasses. For this family, the hard work of growing "sorgo" was rewarded each fall with the taste of sweet syrup. Sweet sorghum syrup is the boiled-down juice from sweet cultivars of Sorghum bicolor, a tall grassy plant. Traditionally called sorghum molasses, the syrup is sweet and light brown in color like maple syrup, but has a mild touch of the distinctive flavor of cane molasses. (True molasses is a by-product created in the production of crystal sugar.) Like molasses, sorghum carries a lot of calories and offers some nutrition in the form of iron, calcium and other minerals. Like real maple syrup, sorghum syrup is a historically important regional product that some still produce the old-fashioned way, with some old-fashioned dedication, hard work, and craftsmanship.
thumbnail photo property of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Sorghum has a long history in America.
Sweet sorghum was officially introduced to American farmers in the 1850s. Heat- and drought-tolerant sorghum found its agricultural niche in the Midwest and South, areas inhospitable to either sugar maple trees or true sugar cane. By the 1880s, sweet sorghum was a major crop, and "sorghum molasses" a staple in many rural kitchens. Small farms might plant just enough sorghum to supply their own needs, or use sorghum as a cash crop. An acre of sorghum could be turned into around sixty gallons of syrup. That would cover a lot of pancakes or hot biscuits. Of course, it must have taken a lot of biscuits and sorghum to do all the work of farming back then. Peak sorghum syrup production, in the mid 1880s, was around 24 million gallons a year.
Sorghum is an annual grass; syrup making was a fall task. Though sorghum was touted as a less labor intensive crop than true sugar cane, it still involved plenty of work. Seedheads were cut off, leaves were trimmed, canes were chopped down. The tall, tall stalks were then fed into a mule or horse powered press that crushed the hard stems and let the sweet green (literally) cane juice flow out. Bits of broken cane and dirt would setttle out before the juice was transferred to a large kettle or long shallow evaporation pan to be cooked. Every eight gallons of juice would become about a gallon of syrup after boiling. Experienced molasses makers would tend the cooking fire, skim impurities off the top of the juice, and judge the right time to stop boiling and bottle the now brown "sorghum molasses." Ken Christison and Keith Kinney have put together a website with a nice pictorial guide to their re-creation of traditional sorghum production.
In the early 1900s, sorghum production began to decline in America. Consumer interest in sorghum lagged when pure white crystal sugar could be bought cheaply. Combined with that decreased demand was the shortage of labor when workers left farms for industrial cities. Sorghum syrup production steadily dropped, hitting a low of annual production of less than a half-million gallons a year from few thousand acres planted.
Click here to see how one die-hard farmer ran a small sorghum press using 1970s technology
In 1974, sky-high sugar prices and maybe some back-to-the-earth environmentalism revived interest in homegrown sweet sorghum. Luckily, a small number of antique mills from the early part of the century were still in use or salvageable. Recent decades have seen an increase in acres planted to sweet sorghum. One estimate is that around 30,000 acres of sweet sorghum are currently being farmed. Kentucky and Tennessee lead by a good margin the 26 states with some commercial sweet sorghum farming. This generation of farmers enjoys the relative luxury that modern technology brings. They also enjoy a syrup yield much higher than those farmers of a hundred-some years ago and higher syrup prices from today's "niche" marketing. Sweet sorghum is a small-farm specialty and most producers rely on refurbished equipment and community-shared processing. Fortunately, they also have the help of the National Sorghum Syrup Producers and Processors Association (NSSPPA).
Have or have not--the sorghum conundrum...
Sweet sorghum remains a tradition in some states and is virtually unknown in others. If you live in a Midwestern or Southern state, you might have a jar of sorghum in your kitchen cabinet. Maybe you've been to, or still have time to plan atttending, a "sorghum festival" in your community. Many major sorghum-growing sates have at least one of these fall events, where visitors view the sorghum growing, pressing and cooking tradition. Southern hospitality being what it is, I'm sure you'll find a ton of good food featuring sorghum as an ingredient.
If you live outside the Sweet Sorghum sphere of influence, like me, you will have to expend some energy to extend your sorghum syrup experience. Visiting a sorghum festival will be a long drive or an overnight trip. The mainstream grocery store you frequent does not stock sorghum syrup. Hardly anyone you know has heard of, much less tasted, sorghum syrup.
If you're sorghum-deprived, try shopping for the syrup at an organic or natural foods market. That's where I found it. Though the clerk had to refer the computer (must not have gotten many queries for it), he was able to point me to a small selection of sorghum syrup. To my surprise, some of the jars of sweet sorghum syrup came from "Rebecca's Garden in Columbia Maryland." That's an easy drive from my house! It turns out that organic grower Warren Turner has maintained his father's sorghum growing tradition and processes sweet sorghum in his facility in Virginia. Boy, was I tickled to see an actual jar of this elusive (in my home state) syrup, locally produced.
What to do with it?
Nutrition is such big news these days, it seems only right to give sorghum a try. With a few adjustments, sweet sorghum can be used to replace other sweeteners in recipes. This page from the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association explains how to make substitutions. I won't pretend to be an expert on this. As a sorghum newbie, I'll start by using my sorghum syrup in place of molasses. Aunt Bett has a great gingerbread recipe that calls for molasses. I'll bet I can use sorghum there, as well as in my oatmeal cookie bars and sweet potato casserole. Truth be told, though, I'm going to have a hard time prying the maple-y (high-fructose corn) syrup bottle from my kids' hands on pancake day. (I may resort to nutrition subterfuge and just sneak sorghum flour into the pancake batter.) Whether or not we become sorghum lovers in this house, we have learned some real-life American history and grown our appreciation for the hard work that American farmers have put, and still put, into feeding us.
References and resources
National Sweet Sroghum Producers and Processors Association, linked above in text
National Sustainable Agricultue Information Service Sorghum Syrup page
Warren Turner of Rebecca's Garden, 10601 Vista Road, Columbia, MD 21044
Phone: 410- 531-5144
Transitional Certified, 3rd Year, Vegetables, Herbs
Bitzer, Morris J. Processing Sweet Sorghum for Syrup. AGR-123. Cooperative Extension Service, University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Lexington
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library
Thanks to fellow DG writers Bev Walker (Sundownr) for finding the thumbnail photo, and Sharon Brown (Sharran) for allowing and encouraging me to write about a topic which she was already well familiar with!
Syrup and flour photo property of author