What is Sweet Sorghum?
Sweet Sorghum, also called “sorgo,” differs from grain sorghum in that it is grown for its stalk. Its grain yield (seed head) is low, and it is juicier and higher in sugar content. Seeing it growing in the field, you might say it looks like corn with its wide blade-shaped leaves arcing out in a whirl around the thick stalk. However, you’ll find no ears and will notice a reddish tinge to the leaves, stalk and ripe seed head. Stalks stand up to 10 feet tall. A shorter version of this same plant, with a large seed head, is grown for livestock feed and is known as Milo.
The Sweet Sorghum we grow for Sorghum Syrup is from the Sorghum Bicolor race, Linn. Moench. Originally, a wild and early cultivated version of sorghum grew in flood conditions, and had many branches and heads. Sorghum came to be adapted to, and popular in, areas where it was too hot and dry to grow corn. It’s adaptation to dry conditions is due to the fact that: it is able to remain dormant during drought and then resume growth; its leaves roll as they wilt thus presenting less surface for transpiration; its waxy leaves and stems protect from drying; and the large fibrous root system extracts moisture from soil.
Sorghum Syrup is made by cooking the juice from the stalk of the Sorghum plant. Sometimes Sorghum Syrup is called “sorghum molasses.” This is confusing, because molasses is made from sugar cane and is a bi-product when granulated white sugar is taken out. Pure Sorghum Syrup has nothing added or taken out. It is true that some Sorghum Syrup producers add corn syrup or sugar cane syrup. Sandhill does not.
Where did sorghum originate?
Sorghum started in Africa and was carried to Asia and Europe before it arrived in North America. The Sorghum you see growing in our fields today is similar, but also very different from its wild ancestor growing in eastern and central Africa prior to 2000 BC.
The remains of Sorghum plants identified in archaeological dig sites have been key to discovering when a particular area began general domestication of agriculture. It is known that West Africans experimented with flood-retreat conditions, adapting a wild variety of Sorghum to be grown and harvested in standing water. Historians speculate that flood-retreat conditions were fairly predictable and therefore lent themselves to domestication of crops.
The Cultivation of Sorghum is certainly tied to the origins and evolution of African agriculture. Because the tools used to harvest wild Sorghum were the same as those used to harvest domesticated Sorghum, archaeologists have not been able to determine exactly when Africans first domesticated the wild Sorghum grain. Some researchers believe general domestication first occurred in the Sudan-Chad area and then spread through Africa to India, reaching India around 2000 BC. There is disagreement among archaeologists and historians as to whether it was in Northeastern Africa or the more central area of the Congo where domesticated sorghum was first developed.
From central or eastern Africa, domesticated Sorghum was spread west and south probably by Bantu tribes. It may have developed independently in India, or been transported aboard “dhow” ships that used seasonal monsoon winds to trade along the east African coast. These traders preferred a Sorghum called “msumbija.” On the “silk road” between Arabia and India, it was called “kaoliang.” The Persian name juar-I-hindi that it was known by in the Middle East indicates it arrived there as well as in the Mediterranean region via Arabia. Pottery impressions of Sorghum grains found in the area historically called “Arabia,” are dated to 2500 BC, and finds in Yemen date to 2000 BC.
In addition to the names for Sorghum noted above, “Samshu,” meaning “a fiery spirit,” is common in North China; and “Jowar” in India.” Pliny, in the first century AD provides the earliest written record of the presence of Sorghum in Europe. The term “Sorghum” first appeared in botanical literature in 1542 and was derived from “Sorgi,” the popular name for the plant in the East Indies.
How did sorghum get introduced to the United States?
Historians are sure that African people, brought to the U.S. as slaves, had Sorghum seeds with them, and grew it in the South. The first record of sorghum seeds coming to the U.S. is 1853 when Chinese amber cane was imported via France. In 1857 Peter Wray brought 16 cultivars of Sorghum from Natal. And, by 1858 the U.S. federal patent office had distributed thousands of seed packets to U.S. farmers.
Early farmers in the arid Texas and Oklahoma plains found it difficult to grow feed corn. Turning to the more drought-tolerant Sorghum (Milo), they continued to develop its ability to stand up to dry and hot conditions. Interest in growing Sorghum began in the south and then spread to the Midwest. During both the Civil War and World Wars I and II, granulated sugar cane was very expensive. By then the tradition of local small farmers growing Sorghum and processing Sorghum Syrup for themselves and their neighbors was becoming well established. In 1925, George M. Reed and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden wrote a piece on Sorghum for high school students to accompany an educational exhibit.
“Harvesting sorghum had always been a family-centered enterprise. Stripping, cutting, heading, and loading the stalks are all labor-intensive activities begging for large families. At that time, mills were powered by horses or mules. Many an old-timer speaks of the days when it was his or her job to ride a horse in an endless circle to grind the cane. Cooking was commonly done on a copper pan over a wood fire, without all the instrumentation most modern processors rely on today. The person who cooked the sorghum was regarded an artisan. Since sorghum is made from September through early November, it is part of the fall harvest tradition. Fall festivals and parties were, and continue to be, centered around cooking and eating.” (Keupper, pg xiii)
After World War II, the availability of less-expensive granulated sugars and corn syrup led to a decline in interest in Sorghum Syrup. However, it remained a strong local tradition of self-reliance well into the 1950’s for family farms to supply themselves with syrup by bringing their Sorghum cane to be processed by a neighbor with a mill.
Where is Sorghum Produced?
In 1860 6.75 million gallons were produced in 25 states, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana accounting for half. It sold for 50-60 cents per gallon. In 1863 Iowa produced 3 million gallons. After the Civil War interest in Sorghum shifted to southern states, but as drought tolerant varieties were developed, it moved with westward settlement to Kansas and Nebraska. In the1880’s and 90’s sugar beet experiments were successful. Sweetener made from both sugar beets and sugar cane far proved to be the more economical, so it became clear that Sorghum as sugar producer would not take off. In the 1940’s the deep southern states were responsible for 70% of production. With the rise of corn and other sweeteners produced out of the Midwest, Sorghum syrup here was never on a large scale. It has traditionally been the product of small farmers who grew it or processed it for their families and neighbors.
How is Sorghum Syrup made at Sandhill Farm?
Planting/Transplanting. In mid April we plant seeds into 100 styrofoam flats. We then float the flats in our hydroponic pond where they sprout within about 3 days. Approximately 3 weeks later, using an old tobacco transplanter that seats 4 and pulled by a tractor, we transplant the seedlings into the fields. Planting the flats and working on the transplanter are fun social times for community members as well as visitors. We also direct sow about half of our Sorghum acreage for a total of about 5 acres.
Tractor Cultivating/Hand Weeding. In addition to controlling the weeds between the rows with a tractor driven cultivator, we go out to the fields very early many mornings throughout the month of July to pull weeds from between plants and rows.
Sorghum Harvest Is A Social Celebration. New friends and those of long acquaintance come to help us with the Sorghum harvest. Sandhill has cherished connections with other intentional communities such as East Wind in Missouri and folks from there come up every year to help. We begin stripping and cutting around September 20, have our first cook at the Sorghum Harvest Festival on the last Saturday in September, and usually finish up by the third week in October.
Topping, Stripping, Cutting. Harvesting is done by hand. We spend our mornings topping (breaking off the seed heads) and stripping (pulling the leaves off). Cutting is best done in the afternoon when the sugars have risen. We cut the cane by grabbing a cluster of 2-4 stalks and a diagonal downward stroke of the machete. The cut cane is laid out in piles that remain in the field for approximately a week to cure. The enzyme in the Sorghum cane that converts starch to sugar requires several days to do its thing. Also, this gives the cane time to dry out a bit, thereby reducing cooking time.
Cooking The Syrup. Cook days actually begin the day before. On that day we bring cane in from the fields on big wagons pulled by the tractor. And, we mill (crush the cane to extract the juice) enough to start cooking early the next day. On the actual cook day we continue milling until about mid-day. And, all day long we have someone tending the cook fire and doing the cooking. At about noon there is enough syrup ready to begin bottling and we continue to bottle until after dinner.
It All Depends On Weather. The timetable outlined here can quickly become compressed when frost threatens or happens. At those times, we hurry up and get all the cane cut down and get ready for several cooks days in a row.
Crop Rotation and Seed Saving on an Organic Farm. Sorghum is rotated with our other harvested crops such as soybeans and wheat, as well as with cover crops/green manure such as rye, vetch, and clover. This builds soil by adding organic matter and nutrients without depleting the soil by growing the same crop in the same field year after year. We save our own seed for the next year.
How Much Do We Produce Each Year? We produce about 800 gallons a year.
How Long Does Sorghum Syrup Last? Forever. It may crystallize in the jar, but heating it up in a microwave, or in a pan of hot water, restores it to liquid form.
Where Can You Buy Our Sorghum Syrup? Stores, restaurants and bakeries in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, carry or use our Syrup. We ship to stores in states further away, and even to Taiwan!. Individuals buy our sorghum all across the country. Locally, you can find our Sorghum at Zimmermans, J’s, Farm and Home, and the Hy Vees in both Kirksville and Quincy. We also sell directly at the farm year round.
How is Sorghum Used?
Beginning with the consumption of wild varieties of sorghum and continuing to the present with domesticated varieties, Sorghum has occupied an important place in both diet and other uses in Africa. These uses relate to grain varieties of the Sorghum plant.
Here in the modern midwestern United States, we mostly know of sorghum being used to make syrup, or its close cousin, milo, being grown for cattle feed. In others areas of the world, both past and present, it has had a variety of uses. In Latin America, Sorghum “grits” are used in brewing European barley beers. Sorghum tortillas are made in some areas of Mexico & Central America. “Pitim,” a thick porridge from Sorghum “grits” is used extensively in Haiti. Stalks and roots of tall Sorghums are used in Africa and India for fuel and building materials. Sorghum ashes are leached to produce an alkali used in some traditional food systems. See also photocopied sheets about flour and beer, etc.
Europeans experimented with it for sugar production. Broom corn, a very close relative of sweet Sorghum, has been cultivated in Italy for at least 400 years.