Sorghum harvest is definitely a highlight of the year at Sandhill – it is the time when friends, folks from other communities, and new people come to help us with the harvest – making it a time of celebration and making the work enjoyable – even festive. Having a large group of people work together on a common task/project is an amazing experience. It also has a nostalgic feel to it: this is how farm folx in the past often worked together, helping each other, thus building community.
Now to the nitty-gritty: what do we do? In the photo to the right, you can see the sorghum plants in the background – they appear very similar to corn but have no ear and have a seed head at the tip. We strip the leaves off by hand (with gloves!), remove the seed head, and then cut the canes at the bottom of the plant with machetes and lay them in small piles in the field to “dry”. They dry for 3-10 days which serves 2 functions: the sorghum canes actually dry – ie. they lose moisture (thus decreasing cooking time) and when the canes are cut, enzymes in the stalk change some of the starches to sugar which is what we are after.
We pick up the canes and load them on wagons – as we are doing in the photo. The wagons of cane are taken to the sorghum press and squeezed/pressed to extract the juice – as seen in the photo below. The press is about a 100 years old and driven/powered by our jaunty old tractor named Kestor (made in 1939) via a long flat belt as can be seen in the photo. The juice is collected in 3 stainless steel tanks, allowed to “settle” (2- 4 hours), and then flows in a plastic hose down to sugar shack where we boil the juice down to concentrate it to a syrup.
How is the juice boiled? Traditionally, it was boiled in a flat pan on top of an open wood fire to concentrate it – similar to maple syrup. We made sorghum that way from 1977 – 2004. Now we use a wood fired steam boiler to generate steam which flows through the copper pipes – as can be seen in the photo on the right. The juice boils vigorously and we remove the “skimmings” – undissolved proteins that impart a bitter taste to the syrup. When the syrup reaches the proper density (similar to honey), we open a drain valve to allow the syrup to run out of the pan and pump it through a cooler and into a barrel and then we bottle the syrup.
This description is a synopsis: there are many details difficult to describe; however, there is a lot of magic in the entire process: harvest – we rely on many people coming to help with the harvest; timing: the sorghum plants need to be mature, dry the proper time and then be processed into syrup and bottled – all in a timely manner. And when it all flows…. the process is very affirming and the product is glorious – rich, earthy, complex, delectable!
We have an annual sorghum festival – a combination of celebrating the sorghum harvest and an open house for Sandhill Farm. To view photos from this year’s festival, go to our website: sandhillfarm.org