I hope, dear friends, that you don’t mind hearing a little more about my sorghum. You see, I am just so happy to have followed this whole process through from getting the cane mill to planting to finished product. I am already planning a much larger patch for next year so we should have a really nice bit of syrup by next fall.
A few people have asked me where I got the sorghum idea…I was reading Mother Earth News magazine and saw an article on the topic. I was intrigued and started my mill hunt. I found that sorghum is finding a new life in people reviving the art of sorghum making and I just had to be a part of that.
Finally, last night we got to really enjoy the fruit of our labor…I made sorghum cookies! Holy cow they are good! I stole the recipe from here.
Best Sorghum Cookies
1/2 cup margarine (I used unsalted butter)
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup sorghum
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large mixing bowl, cream margarine (or butter), shortening, and sugar. Beat in sorghum and eggs; set mixture aside.
3. In an another large bowl, combine flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. Blend thoroughly with wire whisk.
4. Gradually mix flour mixture into creamed ingredients until dough is blended and smooth.
5. Roll dough into 1 1/2-inch balls. Dip tops in granulated sugar; place 2 1/2-inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 11 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool on wire rack.
Store in tightly covered container to maintain softness.
I know, I know…you could barely contain yourself, waiting for the conclusion to the sorghum saga. In my last post, I described how we pressed the sorghum cane to extract the sweet juice using our Kentucky No. 0 Cane Mill. We didn’t really pay much attention to how much juice we actually got but it was enough to make me smile. Of course, anything greater than “none” would have made me smile. Anyhow, we got several gallons of weird looking green sorghum juice.
To make the juice into syrup, one has to cook the water off of the juice which thickens the liquid into syrup and converts sugars and starches into wholesome goodness that is otherwise known as sorghum (or sorghums as the old timers call it).
Originally, people cooked the juice on a wood fire in a large cast iron cauldron…sometimes several feet in diameter. The cauldron had a lip which allowed the cauldron to sit on a circular brick or stone wall inside of which a fire was built. Sorghum cookers got more sophisticated and built long, shallow evaporator pans with baffles which allowed the cooker to add juice to one end and move the sorghum through the pan to the other end as it cooked where syrup was eventually pulled off. Either of these options are still viable but involve a good bit of money to purchase or make. I already have a good bit of money invested in the cane mills and couldn’t see spending any more this year.
It occurred to me that a turkey fryer is not much different from an old fashioned cauldron so we decided to cook our juice in a turkey fryer over propane. I know, it is not too authentic but I had to go with what I had. One of the first things that happens when one turns on the heat under sorghum juice is that a tremendous amount of nasty foam rises to the top. This happens every time as a part of the process and the foam has to be skimmed and discarded. I had a ladle I used to dip it off of the top. We stirred the pot nearly continuously to prevent burning the syrup. It took a few hours over low heat but the juice gradually cooked down and thickened. The smell of the mixture changed from wet pumpkin (almost as bad as wet dog) to sweet…sweet something. I can’t really describe it but it was a nice smell. Finally, the color changed from green to a beautiful amber color. We tasted often and watched it thicken. I finally decided it was done and pulled off the end product. We ended up with 2 quarts plus a little of homemade sorghum syrup and it tastes great!
We learned a lot and, more importantly, spent a lot of quality together-time. We didn’t get enough sorghum to make it extrinsically worth it, but satisfaction in seeing a product through from field to jar is worth a lot to me. Seeing my kids helping out and enjoying time spent is worth a lot to me. Feeling some connection to how old farmers in WV might have produced their own sorghum is worth a lot to me. The syrup is really a secondary part to all of this, but what a sweet bonus it is!
Once upon a time there was a mule called “Brother”. Brother was drafted into turning a cane mill for what seemed like hours on end. After becoming dirty and dizzy, he began to bray for help. Another mule called “Wife” heard his braying and decided to help. With Brother on one end and Wife on the other, the cane mill turned and turned under the hot sun. Then Wife became tired and brayed, “Why can’t I have a rope to pull this load, why do I have to push?” The farmer hooked up a rope to the cane mill. Brother pushed and Wife pulled the cane mill under the hot sun. Round and round the cane mill went while Brother and Wife became dizzy and tired. Finally, both Brother and Wife started braying so loudly that farmer had pity on them and hooked the rope to a tractor. Brother sat upon the tractor and the tractor turned the cane mill round and round under the hot sun. Wife went back and forth, carrying more cane to the farmer who sat upon the ground. The two mules said nothing to the farmer about not thinking of the tractor earlier. However, every time the farmer got hit in the head by the board attached to the mill’s roller, the sounds of “hee haw! hee haw!” were heard throughout the land.
I think her story is hilarious and pretty well summarizes how our day went…
The plan was to process the cane I described yesterday into sorghum syrup. Basically, the canes are full of liquid with natural sugars and other magical things that give it a distinct flavor. To extract the liquid, farmer Warren has to crush the cane using a cane mill. Farmers in the old days used to hitch up horses or mules to a long pole attached to the center roller in the mill. As the animals walked in circles, the rollers turned crushing cane fed into the mill a few pieces at a time.
We reassembled the mill and lagged it to a few sections of old railroad ties. Old timers used to attach the mill to a tree stump that was quite solid in the ground. You see, when the rollers are turned in the mill, a tremendous amount of torque can be generated. If the mill isn’t attached to something solid, it will be spun around…not something I wanted to deal with as a 600 pound block of iron in motion is slightly more than I can handle.
So, we got it assembled and rigged a board to the center shaft. I was the first draft animal to take a turn at the mill. It was slightly easier than I expected to turn the mill. It was frozen solid when I got it so nothing moved. I guess I had an idea that it would be only slightly easier to turn once it was cleaned up. I had not assembled it even once since restoring it so I had no idea! Luckily, it turned well so we decided to start crushing cane. We tried to run a single pieces of cane through it but it didn’t really work.
The rollers are supposed to be spaced at around 1/16th of an inch. On each end of each roller, there used to be bolts that could be used to adjust the spacing of the rollers. On my old mill, I was able to free the top bolts but I couldn’t replace them (not for this year anyhow). The bottom bolts remain frozen in place so I had some ability to adjust the tops of the rollers but the bottoms were set in iron…literally. We set up the mill under a spruce tree so I grabbed a few pine cones and jammed them into the top of the mill to force the rollers closer together. Surprisingly, it worked amazingly well! The spacing at the bottom of the rollers was a little too wide so I had to be careful feeding the cane so that it went mostly towards the top of the joint between the rollers. That worked just fine but was less than ideal.
So, as I said, I was the original draft animal but I had the vision on how to feed the cane too so my brother, who has a mind well suited for being a draft animal, took over turning the rollers (just kidding…he has a PhD in chemistry). Really, neither job was too glamorous. After a few turns, we were both dizzy (and I swear it had nothing to do with the liquid wheat we had nearby) and decided to hook it to the motorized draft animal. I remained on the ground to feed stalk while Isaac and my brother took turns riding the tractor. I suppose we ran cane through the cane mill for 3-4 hours slowly learning tricks and getting better at the process. We had to fight the mill a few times as I got impatient and fed too much cane. The torque increased and we spun the mill in circles…luckily we kept the mill low to the ground for safety. Next year, I will mount it higher and more substantially to make it easier to feed cane and to minimize rotation.
When sorghum juice flows, it is pea green. Truly, it doesn’t look appetizing and I think it smells like the guts of a pumpkin around Halloween. Still, we got juice flowing and I was so excited. The process was working! We pressed a bunch of cane and had a nice bunch of juice to cook down. You’ll have to wait until the next post to hear about that adventure (yeah, I lied yesterday…I have to write more than 2 parts)!
But let me back up. The sorghum grew pretty well once it started growing. I planted a patch around 50’x50′ and it produced a lot of nice canes and beautiful red seed heads. But, of course, time got in the way and it did what sorghum does when you ignore it and don’t harvest when it needs to be harvested. It fell over (which is called lodging). I have read where it might be caused by a number of things but in the end, it adds difficulty to harvesting mechanically and may ruin the canes even if they can be harvested.
Luckily, we got into the field pretty quickly after it started so all of the canes were in good shape although we lost all of the seeds that I otherwise had planned to save and grind into sorghum flour. So, next year I will try to beat the lodging and save the seeds.
So, my brother and I took turns swinging the machete to cut the stalks at the ground while the other stripped leaves from the cane. The leaves aren’t harmful to the sorghum exactly but apparently they add a bitter taste to the finished sorghum syrup. I suppose we spent an hour or two harvesting the patch. It seemed like a small job but it turned out to be a lot more work than we expected. It’s also sticky and dirty work as the sugar content of sorghum cane is pretty high.
We tied the canes into my brother’s trailer and hit the road to my parents’ house around 4pm…their place is around 6 hours away so we rode sticky and sweaty and dirty and had a long day. The plan had always been to harvest and process the cane at our place so we could have an old fashioned neighborhood pressing party like they used to do a hundred years ago. We ran out of time though so decided to have a pressing party at my childhood home where we were planning to visit anyhow. Still, I was on the edge of giddy as I had my first crop of sorghum cane harvested!
I’ll write more in my next post about pressing and cooking the syrup that was in the cane. Harvesting, it turns out, was the easy part!
I wrote a few weeks ago about wanting to grow, process and eat sorghum. The first step in that process is, of course, planting some sorghum seed. Really, before that, we had to prepare some ground to plant. Larry, Granny Sue’s husband turned over a bit of earth at our place. I don’t know if you have ever tried to cultivate a new piece of land for garden space, but it is bone jarring, punishing work if you don’t have big equipment. One could certainly take to it with a rototiller and it will work but you’ll feel a new kind of pain. Anyhow, Larry ran his plow and tractor over a nice chunk of our land to do the initial “turn-over” which I followed up with a smaller tiller to break up the ground further.
I got about half way done with the tilling when another neighbor, Tim, stopped by with his tractor which he used to save my life finish tilling the land. Everything was bone dry and dusty which made this whole process a messy endeavor. Still, Emily and the kids pitched rocks into the woods while I set up the rows and drove row stakes. We carefully planted a dozen or so rows of Sugar Drip sorghum seed. Sugar Drip is an old-time variety good for our part of the country. It matures in around 102 days and makes nice sweet 8-10 foot tall stalks. I ordered seeds from 2 well known heirloom seed suppliers and one says it is a rare breed while the other says it is common across the South. Who knows?
So, we marked our rows and planted the beautiful little seeds (which we will collect from our plants this year and save for next year) and covered them carefully with the freshly tilled dust dirt. Luckily, it rained some this week so things should start growing well. Sorghum is an African native so prefers warm temperatures but does well in heat and dry once it is established.
I have learned that sorghum is one of the top grain crops grown around the world. Varieties can be used for syrup but most sorghum is planted as fodder for animals or as grain for daily consumption by humans. Many people are considering using it to make biofuel as it thrives in most warm locations. For folks with gluten allergies, it also is a common grain source for gluten free beer (hmmm…another project?).
So, our sorghum is in the ground though possibly a little early. I will keep a close eye on its progress but am hopeful for some awesome looking cane in a few months. Now, I really have to get back on track with restoring those cane mills I have sitting out in my yard!
I get wild hairs sometimes. It is usually not a big deal but when I get into something, sometimes I jump in with both feet. Honestly, most times I jump with both feet. Plans are nice for people who like to plan, but I often just go for it. I posted a few weeks ago about the Chattanooga Plow Company cane mill I got to make sorghum. In response to that post, a gentleman in Minnesota contacted me about a mill he had inherited from his grandfather…in Minnesota. That’s probably a little far north for sorghum and definitely too far north for sugar cane. He wasn’t sure why it ended up in his grandfather’s barn but he wanted to find it a new home where it would be used as it was intended.
We emailed back and forth for quite awhile. I considered driving to Minnesota to pick it up but that seemed like more than I wanted to bite off. I checked around for shipping costs but since it was so heavy and the weight was concentrated into such a small package, the prices were insane. The highest price I saw was $2300.
I really wanted this mill though. It is sort of cool to add to the collection because it was made by Deere & Mansur. That company became John Deere of course. What makes that fun in my book is that International Harvester which made the other mill (by buying Chattanooga Plow Company), got into the plow business when it appeared that Deere was going to branch from the plow business into the harvester business. I do not know the exact dates but these two cane mills would have been contemporaries and competitors.
Anyhow, awhile back I flipped the tv to watch Shipping Wars. It’s a program following small shippers who bid on parcels that need delivered. The idea is I put a bid request for delivery of my cane mill and small (and some large) shippers bid on it. Bids go lower of course so I make out better and can choose the lowest/best bidder. On the show, they follow a few very colorful shippers, most of whom have a van or small truck where they pick up several packages and bid on additional deliveries along their route.
So, I signed up and a nice couple from WV happened to be in Minnesota and were heading through WV on their way to FL (or something like that). They bid on my delivery and it worked out beautifully. They called me often with status updates and I could track their progress with the website that manages all of this. I guess not everyone has great luck but my shipping battle was a done deal! I received the mill and have plans to fix it up and use it along with the bigger mill. Honestly, I am at the edge of giddy about having these cool and historic pieces of farm equipment in my possession. Emily may be less excited but she surely is a tolerant and kind woman!
So over the weekend, Emily and I went on a road trip to Pleasureville, KY. Thumper told Bambi what his Mom had pounded into his head, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”. In regard to Pleasureville, KY, I will follow the Thumperian Principle and let you visit sometime to make up your own mind.
Anyhow, back to my main purpose…let me give you some back story… Sorghum is a plant native to Africa that was first raised in the United States in 1853 or so. Much like sugar cane, sorghum cane has a sweet core that can be pressed and boiled to make sorghum syrup (some people call it molasses or sorghum molasses. Molasses is technically made from sugar cane only).
It was commonly grown on farms in the south where sugar cane wouldn’t thrive (i.e. the mid-south) so families could have access to sweetener. Anyhow, as family farms declined in number and as artificial sweeteners grew in popularity and cheap labor (I read this as large farm families) became less accessible, sorghum fell by the wayside.
There really isn’t anyone making sorghum presses, at least not in the old style, so the only ones left are 100 or more years old. There are a few old cane mills left but they are becoming more and more scarce as old-timers pass away and old farms rot back to the land. There are a few people still willing to turn loose of an old cane press they have laying around, but it is hard and expensive to find them. That brings us to our trip to KY. We bought an old sorghum cane mill made by the Chattanooga Plow Company from a guy who had one there.
I have another bit of info you didn’t ask for but I am going to tell anyhow…Chattanooga Plow Company made plows and basic cast iron farm equipment and was a very large producer in the mid to late 1800s. They were bought by International Harvester when it appeared John Deere was going to get into the harvester business. JD had been absent in that market while focusing on plows and similar implements. When IH got word that JD might be getting into harvesters, IH decided to get into plows. (Read a really interesting history here). So, ultimately, my cane mill is in the International Harvester family.
I also have bees, as you may know, so you could say I have a thing for sweets. What really made me think about raising sorghum though, is a recent article in Mother Earth News (here’s the article). Basically, as folks long to understand old ways and to eat natural food or produce their own “stuff”, sorghum has enjoyed a bit of a revival. I read the story in Mother Earth News and read a bunch more online and was hooked on the idea. Getting started in any new endeavor can be a problem if you do not have folks around who understand how to do things, like, say, grow and process sorghum.
I am very fortunate that Granny Sue, my neighbor, used to process sorghum on her farm and the man who originally owned both her land and mine, also ran sorghum. I think this new project was meant to be! I have a few months to restore this old cane mill while our sorghum grows, and I will be sure to keep you up to date on that process. I hope some other folks in the area will plant sorghum so we can have a regular old fashioned sorghum cook-off. I think that’s a big part of the old ways too…doing thing as a community.