So often, we think of cultural enrichment to be an exposure to the fine arts and humanities. We visit museums, attend theatrical performances, and are exposed to various music styles through opera, philharmonics, travel and even satellite radio. While our tastes may vary greatly from person to person on any of these subjects, we all recognize the exposure to these provides us context for history, geography and generally the exploration of key ideas across facets of our lives.
This same recognition of the arts is also contributing to the popularity in the homesteading movement. It stands to reason the root word in agriculture is “culture.” When married with the prefix “agri-,” meaning soil or land, we get a rich framework through which we can see our relationship with land and with our food. One such agri-“cultural” experience that has brought great joy to communities throughout history is the production of sorghum.
A Rich History
In southeastern Illinois, the Woods brothers—Elvis, Leo and George—have revived the old sorghum mill their parents operated from 1947 to 1960. Located in Old Pinch, Ill., an unincorporated community located between Browns and Bone Gap, the mill is a testament to the art and ingenuity of the farm community.
“The Story of Old Pinch” by W. A. Briggs says that people from about a 50-mile radius brought their sorghum cane to Old Pinch in the mid 1940s to have it processed at a cost of 44 cents per gallon. The sorghum syrup had a market value in those days of $3 per gallon. Beyond the economical reasons for visiting the mill, people in the area brought their cane to have it processed in the fall because the mill was hub of activity. Sorghum processing was an event! This has brought people together, on and off, for a century and a half in southeastern Illinois and in other areas of the country for good food, fellowship, historic preservation, and the creation of that amber goodness called sorghum.
Identifying Sorghum Plants
Sorghum cane is a large cane plant in the grass family. It’s easily identifiable as a cereal grain by the flush head of seed at the top of the cane, but what truly gives it away is its towering height. Sorghum cane will reach heights of 8 to 10 feet. If you see a shorter plant in the field with a plume of seeds on a single stalk, you are probably looking at milo, another type of sorghum grain plant. Sorghum is pretty hardy and grows well in dry, hot areas. You will see the plant growing throughout the South, as well as in the West and Southwest. For the production of sweet sorghum you will need as much juice as possible sourced from its long stalks.
If you’re preparing to process sorghum, set aside quite a bit of time, as it can take all day or even longer from milling to bottling the final product. The production of sorghum is labor intensive and requires a few specialty pieces of equipment:
- scythe or machete
- holding tank (any food-grade water jug will work)
- stainless-steel cooking pan, large enough to hold at least 20 gallons
- skimmer (any fine, wire-mesh kitchen skimmer will work)
- plenty of firewood
- glass jars
Step 1: Harvest Sorghum Cane
Sorghum cane harvesting is usually done by hand a day or two before milling occurs. You will need to remove the seed head and all the leaves from the cane, and leave the cane standing in the field. Once you have a wagon ready for the cane, you can use a scythe or machete to cut the cane as close to the ground as possible. Some of the old timers feel they get more juice—or as they say, “a better squeeze”—if the cane is put into the mill blunt end (bottom) of the cane first. Therefore, it’s important to stack your cane on the wagon with it all facing the same direction.
Step 2: Mill The Cane
When ready to mill your cane, you will need a special mill with metal rollers—just about any cane juicer will work. You can purchase new machines at CaneMachines.com or can shop for the old antique cane presses in the classified sections of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association. Sites like Craigslist are another source for older mills. Some farmers choose to use the traditional method of a horse-drawn mill, as shown in the video above.
The size of the mill will dictate how many canes can be squeezed at a time. Use a screen to filter all the pulp from the sweet green liquid coming out of the mill and entering your holding tank. Food-grade water jugs work great for holding tanks, as they’re easy to clean and transport and come in sizes from 5 gallons to 300 gallons. The larger containers are available at most farm supply stores and the smaller 5 gallon to 15 gallon containers can be found at most large home improvement stores. The holding tank you choose should either be small enough that you can carry it to the area you have designated for cooking or have a valve at the bottom to allow you to drain off the cane juice as needed.
Step 3: Boil The Juice
The juice is a beautiful, bright-green color, which will begin to brown as it’s cooked. When you have enough cane juice to cover the bottom of your stainless-steel cooking pan, you’re ready to begin boiling the liquid. At minimum, your cooking pan should be 2 by 2 feet square and 1 foot deep—at three-quarters full, this will hold about 20 gallons of juice, which is perfect for making at least a gallon of syrup. If you want to scale up your operation, here’s a helpful formula to use to determine the volume of pan you’ll need:
length x width x fill depth (all in inches) = cubic volume (in inches)
cubic volume / 231 (cubic inches per gallon) = number of gallons of juice the tank can hold
So a 24-by-24-by-8-inch pan could hold almost 20 gallons of cane juice. Remember to account for enough head space to bring the juice to a rolling boil without it spilling over the top.
Place the cooking pan full of cane juice over a hot fire, and as the juice simmers, constantly stir or move the juice in the pan to keep it from scorching. Use the skimmer of some kind to remove the green film, pulp and bubbles that will constantly appear as the cane juice cooks.
You’ll need to be patient during this step. A rolling boil will evaporate the juice at about 8 gallons per hour, so you’ll need to account for several hours to see the sorghum from juice to syrup.
Once you start to see brown bubbles forming, it is time to start tasting the sorghum. Everyone has an opinion on when the sorghum is finished, and you will find a spectrum of sorghum from the very light to the very dark and rich. Let your taste buds make that determination.
Step 4: Bottle The Syrup
Remove the sorghum syrup from your pan to sterilized glass jars by using a valve on your pan or ladles. At this point, you can take great pride in knowing you have taken a crop of sorghum cane and processed it in a way that has been handed down from generation to generation, but even more so, share the event with your community just as the Woods family has done for generations in southeastern Illinois. This is culture!