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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sorghum time at Greasy Creek Farm

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Statistics show that, in the U.S., sorghum grass is considered good for mainly one thing -- cattle feed.

But them's fightin' words to anyone who has ever eaten a hot buttered biscuit covered with sorghum on a cold winter's day.

While production of sweet sorghum has fallen from 20 million U.S. gallons a year in the early 1800s to just one million gallons currently, there are still lots of sorghum syrup fans, especially in the south.

Doyle Taylor feeds sorghum stalks into an old mill to extract juice, while granddaugher Jennifer Newman cleans up the mess -- making a stack of used stalks to feed cattle. [Order this photo]
There are several sorghum producers in the area who still meet the local demand for the sticky, sweet product.

"We haven't made sorghum in a couple of years, so, oh, yeah, people are waiting for it," Warren Newman said on a recent fall day. "They are wanting to know when it will be ready."

On that day, Newman, owner of Greasy Creek Farm in southern Fulton County, and family members gathered to practice a ritual that goes back to the 1700s, when sorghum was brought to the U.S. from Africa.

Warren Newman and family members skim off foam and monitor the cooking process as sorghum juice is turned to sorghum syrup over an outdoor fire. Sorghum making has not changed much over the past 100 years. [Order this photo]
"Except for not using horses, the process of making sorghum hasn't really changed over the years," Newman said.

His family proved that statement as they plunged into the hard labor involved in squeezing juice from sorghum stalks, and cooking it into syrup.

"I'm doing the same job I did 60 years ago, when I was nine or ten," Newman's Father-In-Law, Doyle Taylor, said, as he stood on a hay wagon and fed cut stalks into a "mill," just as he did helping his grandfather years ago.

The mill on the Newman farm is an ancient piece of machinery that has two rollers which mash the stalks and squeeze out the green juice, which looks a lot like stagnant green pond water.

The Newmans and other sorghum makers used to have horses walk in circles around their mills -- providing the power for the juicing process.

The Newmans one concession to modern times is a huge belt which runs from the mill to the back tire of an old tractor, which turns freely and makes the mill rollers roll.

As the squeezed juice is funneled to a storage container, Newman's son, Kasey, is nearby washing a long metal pan, and preparing to start a fire to begin the cooking process.

Sister, Jennifer, is standing below the mill grabbing used stalks and throwing them onto a big pile to use later as cattle feed.

"They (the cattle) will like the stalks them because they are so sweet," Jennifer said. "Something a little different than what they are used to eating."

Newman said he doesn't know why more farmers don't grow sorghum, because the crop does well in dry climates, as shown by the pile of cane stalks ready for juicing, despite a record drought.

After observing the process, the answer is, planting, cutting, extracting and cooking sorghum juice is a very labor intensive business.

"Once you get everything ready and get underway, there's not stopping," Newman said. "I remember making sorghum one Halloween while it was raining and lightning."

As the amount of juice collected grows, Kasey gets the fire going at an unusual fire- place. It consists of a big chimney of rock and concrete, connected to a fire box that is about five feet long, with a big metal pan above it. The fire is built at the front of the fire box and the heat cooks the sorghum juice which is poured into the metal pan.

"The big challenge is getting the fire just right before we start cooking," Kasey said.

While the fire took right off, a lot of tinkering followed, to get it to produce a hot, steady heat and, by early afternoon, the family, joined by Kasey's wife, Courtney, were stationed along the metal pan, as the green juice poured into the front of the metal pan slowly ran back toward the chimney. The juice is the only ingredient of sorghum. It turns to syrup as the heat evaporates water from the juice, making it thicker.

The process puts off a lot of heat and smoke and steam, but family members hold their ground, using homemade skimmers to skim off foam which rises to the top.

"It's too hot, put some water on it," Kasey yells to his father, as he monitors the cooking, and keeps checking a thermometer.

Newman, who is standing by with a water hose, gives the fire a squirt to cool it down a bit.

"When it (thermometer) hits 230 degrees here by the chimney, the sorghum in this area should be ready," Kasey explained, as he pulled a stick out of a hole in the side of the pan, allowing sorghum to drip down through a cloth filter and into a bucket.

After a while, Newman and Taylor dip spoons into a bowl of the just-cooked sorghum for a taste test.

Taylor, who Newman calls his "expert," offers a seal of approval.

"Good golden color, good consistency, it's good," Taylor said smiling after sampling a couple of spoonfuls.

Then it was quickly back to work. The metal pan was full of bubbling sorghum juice, so the line of workers ignored the heat and smoke and kept skimming and monitoring for the time a new batch would be ready to take off the fire.

While it's a long day of work, the Newmans seem to look forward to their sorghum making, it's partially a social affair, as friends and relatives drop by to see how its going. Another plus is knowing that their finished product will sell well, and be enjoyed by many.

A few days later, Jennifer is set up on the Salem Square selling produce from the farm's fall garden and, on the corner of her folding table, big jars of fresh sorghum are on display and ready for sale.

"We hoped to make about 60 gallons," Jennifer said, "but we got a little delayed when the mill broke down and we had to stop to get it welded. I think we came out with about 45 gallons, so we have a lot of sorghum to sell."

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