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Sorghum Revival

How to Grow Your Own Natural Sweetener Allergic to bees and don’t have sugar maple trees but want to produce your own sweeteners? Try sweet sorghum syrup, a natural sugar substitute you can grow in most U.S. gardens and boil 22 Mother Earth News XXXX/XXXX XXXX

By Sherry Leverich Tucker


grew up helping my family make sweet sorghum syrup. I remember the sorghum canes growing in our garden, and the late summer day we harvested our crop. I loved the long day with family and friends, Dad readying the equipment, and Mom making sure everyone was fed. After Dad passed away, I became determined that my children would continue to play a part in producing this homegrown, natural sweetener. Sorghum-making is a way to increase your food self-sufficiency, but more than that, it’s a meaningful tradition to add to your homestead.

A past call-out in Mother Earth News for sorghum-making stories led to a flow of memories, photos and recipes centered on sweet sorghum syrup. (I’ve shared many of these stories in the Modern Missouri Homesteader blog I’ve read about­­ kids chewing on sticks of sweet cane, neighbors working together to send the cane through the mill, and loving parents ladling syrup onto a pan for kids to dip into with apples. The best part? These aren’t only old, nearly forgotten memories. There’s a sorghum revival underfoot that you can join to experience the sweet satisfaction of becoming one step closer

Left: Up to a week before you press your sorghum, strip the leaves and seed heads from the stalks. Above: Traditionally, horses were used to haul sorghum from the fields to the mill.

to food self-reliance.

What Is Sorghum Syrup?

and makes a cone-shaped seed head filled with BB-sized seeds. Sorghum seed must be planted, thinned and fertilized in late May to early June after the ground is warm. There are several seed varieties available (see “Sweet Sorghum Varieties” below). ‘Sugar Drip’ is a favorite among sorghum-makers in my area of Missouri, myself included. Look for sweet sorghum producers in your hardiness zone to acquire seed acclimated to your area — most sorghum varieties mature in 100 to 120 days. After your first sorghum harvest, you can save enough seed for future plantings. You must thin sorghum plantings to 4 to 6 inches between plants in order to grow thick, tall canes. Fertilize and cultivate your sorghum planting as you would a crop of corn, though sorghum won’t require as much nitrogen. Sorghum is fairly drought-tolerant and

Sorghum syrup is a 100 percent natural sweetener sometimes called “sorghum molasses,” as its flavor and uses are similar to that of molasses made from sugar cane. Sorghum-makers press sweet, green juice from the sorghum canes and cook the juice down into a finished syrup. Ten gallons of sorghum juice will make approximately 1 gallon of syrup. When made at home, every batch of sorghum syrup turns out a little different, because there are many variables in the process. The variety of cane grown, the type of soil it’s grown in, the maturity of the cane at harvest, the length of cooking — all of these factors work together to turn out a unique, natural sugar substitute each time. Check around for local sorghum festivals, and visit the website of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association (www.NSSPPA. Shorter season: ‘Della,’ ‘Rox Orange’ (aka ‘Waconia’) org) to get in touch with Longer season: ‘Dale,’ ‘M81E,’ ‘Sugar Drip,’ ‘White African’ folks in your area. For more Seed Sources detailed instructions on proBaker Creek Heirloom Seeds: ducing sweet sorghum syrup, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: check out our online selecTownsend Sorghum Mill: tions from the guidebook Sweet Sorghum Production and Processing from the Kerr Center of Sustainable Agriculture ( DxNJ3 and Ng3fx).

Sweet Sorghum Varieties

Growing Sorghum Sweet sorghum grows as a cane from 6 to 10 feet tall

grows quickly following a rain, so irrigation shouldn’t be necessary in most climates. For a small crop that you can process into syrup in one day, you should plant six 100-foot rows of cane, spacing each row about 1 to 2 feet apart. You should plant about a quarter-pound of seed for the initial sowing, and then replant a few weeks later in areas of poor germination. A crop this size will yield approximately 40 to 50 gallons of juice, which will cook down to about 4 to 5 gallons of finished sorghum molasses. Comparatively, a smaller, 100-square-foot crop (two 50foot rows) would produce about 6 gallons of juice and two-thirds gallon of syrup.

Harvest Time Sorghum canes grow through summer and form large seed heads that usually turn brick-red as they mature, typically in late summer or early fall. For most sorghum varieties, the maturity of the seed also marks the peak level of sugar content present in the juice. Cut a stalk every week during the last few weeks of maturity, strip away the cane and chew on the pith to taste the juice as its flavor changes from grassy to sweet. When the canes are ready for harvest, call in friends and family — the harvest and processing steps will require extra hands on deck. Up to a week before your processing date, remove all


After pressing the canes through the mill (left), transfer the juice to a long, shallow pan to cook down over a fire pit into the final syrup (right).

of the leaves and seed heads from the canes, saving the seed heads for replanting. A few days before up to the morning you plan to press, cut the cane to about 6 inches above the ground with a

long-handled scythe, machete or pruning shears. Pile all of the canes facing the same direction, and transport these piles to your mill and processing site.

Sweet Sorghum Recipes and Nutrition As sweeteners go, sorghum syrup is a vitamin and mineral powerhouse that makes a tasty natural sugar alternative. Similar to sugar cane molasses in flavor and use, sweet sorghum syrup contains healthy doses of calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. Drizzle sorghum syrup on warm biscuits and pancakes, add to muffin and gingerbread batters, or follow these recipes, available online: Ooey-Gooey, Rich and Sweet Sorghum Caramels: Oatmeal Bread Made With Sorghum: Sorghum Gingersnap Cookies: Sorghum-Nut Bread:

Want to Taste Sorghum Syrup? Country Rock Sorghum: 859-873-8497; send an email to or Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill: 931-445-3509; w ­

Milling and Processing The craft of sorghum-making requires special equipment to press the juice from the canes. You can find vintage iron sorghum mills at farm sales, or purchase new machines built following old designs. These are heavy and must be permanently mounted on a sturdy platform, but they can squeeze large amounts of sorghum quickly. These machines were traditionally powered by animal labor, but a small tractor or electric motor is now more common. You may want to look into making a group purchase, as these large mills are often expensive. GrainMaker is currently developing a smaller, hand-cranked mill that should be available mid-2013. For more information on locating sorghum mills and the GrainMaker press, see “Equipment and More Info” on Page XX. When you press the canes, you’ll need to catch the flow of juice and strain it to keep out bits of stalk, pith and dirt. Collect the strained juice in a large vessel, such as a 5-gallon bucket. I use a large metal strainer placed on top of a larger colander, which is double-lined with cheesecloth.

Cooking and Skimming You must cook the juice down to the final sorghum syrup. This requires a large pan (evaporator) and a heat source, typically a wood fire. You’ll need a shallow, rectangular pan that accommodates the amount of juice the batch begins with, but that won’t let the syrup spread too thin as it cooks down, causing it to scorch. As an example, we use a 24 Mother Earth News XXXX/XXXX XXXX

stainless steel pan that’s 6 feet long and 3 feet wide with 6-inch-high sides. This pan holds up to 50 gallons and can cook as few as 30 gallons without scorching the syrup. A pan about 2 to 3 feet long and 1 to 2 feet wide would work well for cooking down 10 gallons of juice. A fire pit is the typical heat source for small-scale sorghum syrup production. Your pit should be surrounded on three sides with cinder blocks (stacked two high works well) to support the pan and hold it level over the fire. Leave one narrow end of the pit open for adding firewood, and build out the opposite end with cinder blocks for a stovepipe large enough to ensure a good draw for the fire. We use a 12-inch-diameter, 6-foottall stovepipe. As you start squeezing the canes, build a fire in the pit. You can begin cooking after you’ve pressed at least half of your canes. Place the clean pan over the fire and immediately pour the juice in, adding the remaining juice to the pan as you press. Use a skimmer to lift off the green foam that floats to the surface throughout the day, which must be removed to ensure a clean, flavorful sorghum syrup. I feed this byproduct to our pigs, along with the spent sorghum canes — they wallow in, sleep on and eat them with relish. Eventually, less scum and fewer brown bubbles will appear — a signal that you are nearly finished cooking. You must decide when the syrup is finished based on thickness and taste, which is a learning process. Be especially careful not to undercook or underskim, as these can ruin a batch more than anything else. Undercooking can cause it to develop mold, and leaving the “green” foam can make the syrup go rancid. It shouldn’t taste raw as when it’s first squeezed from the stalk, and it should be thick like corn syrup (the hot syrup will be thinner than the final product). Watch the temperature of the sorghum using a candy thermometer to help identify when the sorghum syrup is nearly finished, around 225 to 235 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even sweeter

Equipment and More Info Edwards Engineering 713-849-6825 Offers new mills in old and new designs for both small and large operations.

National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association Provides information and services to sorghum producers, including an events calendar.

GrainMaker 855-777-7096 Developing a new mill design for hand-crank processing. Best for small operations.

When the syrup is finished, the pan needs to be transferred from the heat to a heat-safe surface. Immediately ladle the sorghum syrup into sterilized jars and screw on clean lids.

Sweet Satisfaction At the end of a day of sorghum-making, the pan has been licked clean, rinsed out and set to rest against a nearby tree. The fire is built higher, kids are playing hide-and-seek, the stars are coming out to shine, and laughter fills the air. Everyone gathers around the flames to discuss how this batch was different from last year’s syrup, when we’ll see the first frost, and when we’ll have our first hard freeze. The final summer party of the year is coming to a close, replaced with dreams of baked sweet potatoes and hot biscuits smothered with butter and drizzled with sweet sorghum syrup. Bring on the cold — we’re ready.

Sherry Leverich Tucker is inspired and fascinated by country skills — sorghummaking, market gardening and hograising, among them. You can follow along with her homesteading adventures and keep up with the sorghum revival at

Find more step-by-step details from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s guidebook Sweet Sorghum Production and Processing on growing sorghum ( and processing sweet sorghum syrup (


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Sorghum for sherry  
Sorghum for sherry