(Editor’s Note: Last year, Dave Ross tried his hand at growing sorghum, then pressing and cooking the juice into the delicious old-time syrup many people remember. Here are his adventures in sorghum farming!)
Sorghum. At last the project has reached completion. From mail-ordered seeds that arrived in May, to sorghum syrup in my jars on the counter, to molasses crinkle cookies. It was a fun, educational experience, but honestly, I probably won’t raise it again. Sorghum syrup can be purchased from a local Amishman for a good price per quart. Lehman’s also carries it year-round, and that makes the effort of raising, stripping, taking the stalks somewhere to get them squeezed, and cooking down the sweet juice into finished syrup, more costly than buying it locally. Still, there was value and fun in the experience, and I’m glad I did it.
The first seeds were planted mid-May, but apparently the ground was not warm enough, and the germination rate was low. Planted two more rows the first of June, and the germination rate was nearly 100%. Then, it was just a matter of weeding, cultivating, and waiting. The stalks grew over twelve feet tall, with large seed heads on top. As previously arranged with my neighbor’s brother-in-law, John*, I stripped the stalks and cut them down on a Wednesday, and took them for squeezing that Friday. I had no idea how much or how little juice I should expect from my roughly 250 stalks. That isn’t much of a crop, but I wanted to do it in a small way while learning.
Friday morning found me pulling back a long, dusty lane to John’s place with my bundle of sorghum. He was there at his machine, running a few sample stalks through it to make sure it was operational. My sorghum would be the first for the year. His boiling operation was not yet going, but since I was going to do my own boiling, he started with me. Next to the building were large stacks of stalks already there, waiting for him to work his magic.
John uses a diesel engine to power the rollers and a silo chopper/blower that the squeezed stalks are carried into. As the stalks come out the backside of the rollers, they get chopped into bits and blown onto a pile where they will later be used as compost on his fields.
John’s set-up is really geared for a lot of production. The squeezed juice runs down a pipe into vats where it is strained, and from there into steam-heated boiling vats. Two of them. The steam is created by a wood-fired boiler that actually looks like an old steam engine. Steam lines run from the boiler to the insides of the cooking pans. John said when he is up and running, he is squeezing, boiling, and finishing all at the same time. He said the squeezing mill can barely keep up with the boiling and finishing. When I was there, this process was not started yet, and he invited me to come back later the next week, when he would be running full bore.
My squeezings amounted to about six gallons of juice. That’s all. This would not be enough for my maple syrup boiling pan, so I cooked it in the house in a two-burner pan. John figured I’d get maybe two quarts of sorghum syrup from that amount of juice.
Now here is the main reason I probably won’t do this again. All was well for the first four or five hours. Just let it boil and occasionally skim off the green froth. When the syrup reached 220 degrees, it began to foam up in the pan. It needed to get to at least 226 degrees to be finished. Because of the foaming, I had to cut the heat a lot. For the next three or four hours it was necessary to hover over the stove and watch it closely. This was painful and boring. My feet hurt, and my eyes wanted to sleep. Finally, at 11 P.M. the sorghum had reached 226 degrees and tested at 78% sugar. That’s the correct sugar content according to most information that I could find.
The finished product was darker than anticipated, and somewhat tangier as well. Still, it was delicious! That’s the way it works when we do things ourselves. The pleasure and appreciation is greatly multiplied.
Before cleaning up some sticky droppings, and crashing into bed for the night, there were just over two quarts of thick, sweet, sorghum syrup sitting on my counter. John had guessed correctly.
Molasses crinkles cookies were mixed up the next morning using our fresh sorghum, and baked that afternoon. Talk about delicious! Best cookies ever! Can’t say it enough — when you put your own “sweat equity” into something, it is always so much better.
And that’s all for today from our little hometown of Kidron, Ohio. Time to go enjoy a tall, cool glass of farm-fresh milk with a few homemade cookies…
- 1 1/2 c. shortening
- 2 c. brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup sorghum (or molasses)
- 4 1/2 c. white flour
- 4 tsp. baking soda
- 2 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 tsp. ground cloves
- 1 tsp. salt
- white sugar (for rolling)
- Cream shortening and brown sugar until fluffy.
- Add eggs and sorghum and mix well.
- Add all the rest of the ingredients and mix until incorporated into dough.
- Chill dough for several hours.
- Shape into 1″ balls.
- Roll each ball in white sugar.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 min.
- Yields 8-10 dozen cookies.
*Name changed to protect privacy