Sorghum: For Much More Than Syrup

This ancient grain has been a staple crop for centuries and is gaining revival on small farms across the country.

by Matt Fowler
PHOTO: Pete Anderson/Flickr

As you begin to plan this year’s crops, you might consider planting sorghum. Sorghum has a long history of cultivation dating back thousands of years. A staple cereal crop worldwide, it’s considered the third most important cereal grain in the U.S. (behind corn and wheat), according to the Whole Grains Council.

As homesteaders and hobby farmers, our thoughts regarding sorghum often turn to the amber syrup created from the sweet cane juice, but sorghum is valuable for more than just the cane. The production of sorghum syrup is labor intensive and requires a few specialty pieces of equipment, but the plant itself is a hardy plant able to grow in most climates. Its leaves can be mistaken for corn plants in the early stages, but with tall slender canes reaching 8 to 10 feet tall topped with large plume of grain on the head, plant it is unmistakable in its latter stages. Here are some of the ways you can put it to use on your farm.

Uses For Sorghum

Sorghum Juice

If you’ve traveled through regions that grow sugar cane, you may have tasted the refreshing drink pressed from this crop. Sorghum cane offers this same opportunity. Sorghum juice is very sweet and can add great refreshment and sweetener to your juice concoctions, or can be a refreshing drink by itself.

In general, the production of sorghum syrup is a community event because of the large, heavy, costly equipment needed to juice and boil large quantities of sorghum cane; however, many of us already own a small juicer. You will have to experiment with your juicer’s ability to handle the fibrous and stringy outer layer of the sorghum stalk. Simply peeling it with a carrot peeler can eliminate this problem if your juicer has trouble.

It’s important to recognize that your juicer is not designed to juice large quantities of cane. If you have an 8-foot-long piece of sorghum cane sticking out of the top of your juicer, you’re most likely exceeding its ability. Cut your sorghum cane into pieces about the length of carrots and experiment with your favorite juice recipes that way.

Sorghum Flour

The plume of seeds at the top of the sorghum plant is a whole grain that can be ground into flour. Sorghum flour has become popular as the recognition of gluten sensitivities have come to light in recent years because it is gluten-free, but it also has impressive nutritional value, containing a good mix of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein, iron, potassium and phosphorus. Sorghum flour is a much lighter-colored flour compared to fresh-ground wheat or buckwheat that you might already grow and harvest—it’s almost off white or light yellow.

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Before you go through the trouble of planting sorghum in your garden, purchase a bag of sorghum flour at a health-food retailer and try substituting or blending it with other grains in some of your favorite recipes.

Feed Stock

Sorghum plants produce an abundance of seeds on the plume. Even after drying enough seed for sorghum flour and for replanting, the abundance of seed may seem overwhelming. If you have plenty more than you can use yourself, the fresh or dried seed can be used as feed for your animals. Chickens especially enjoy the sorghum seed and may very well be active participants in the harvesting process, gathering the seeds as they fall.

Harvesting Sorghum Cane

When harvesting sorghum cane, remove the leaves and the seed plume from the cane. A machete is easily the best tool for this job. The leaves can be composted, and the seed plumes need to be spread out on a screen to dry. The canes can be cut just above ground and cut to size for your intended use. The longer you allow the cane to sit before juicing, the greater the concentration of sugar in your juice.

It’s my hope that you will join me in planting a few cereal grains on your property this year and that you will experiment with the diverse nature of sorghum as one of them. Mennonite Sorghum is considered to be one of the best dual-purpose (cane juice and grain) sorghums if you are shopping for a sorghum seed to try this year.

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