If you drive the back roads through the country in Southern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee in the late summer you might have noticed a strange looking crop growing in the fields. The foliage is tall and green. The stocks with tassels topping the heads resemble corn without ears. It's not a type of corn, but the singular Southern crop of sorghum, 'sorghum bicolor'. Scattered throughout our rural countryside, the old ways are kept alive by the harvesting, the horse drawn milling and the processing of the old-fashioned staple. One such place is the Highland Community just across the state line up the road from Lafayette, TN. Overseen by community member and chief cook Joe Troyer, the sorghum harvest is a community effort, from growing and harvesting to milling and bottling.
"It's a hand-me-down way of making sorghum", explains Joe. "You can only learn by a hands-on experience. It's not something you can really learn from a book. You have to learn by watching and doing." Originally from an Old Order Mennonite Community in Indiana, Joe and his family lived several places eventually settling in Highland in 1992. Before long he became interested in making the sweetener. His cousin, Reuben Habegger of the Spring Valley Sorghum Mill in Scottsville, KY was instrumental in helping Joe and, another Highland community member and cousin, Jonathan Habegger of Spring Valley Farm, get the Highland sorghum mill up and running.
"Sorghum needs a warm climate to prosper," says Joe. "The best sorghum comes off poor land. It needs little fertilizers, withstands drought and the only weather damaging to the crop is when wind blows it down. It's the perfect organic crop." Tennessee and Kentucky are the leading states in the production of sorghum syrup. The seed was originally brought here from Africa with the slave trade. The harvest begins in September and runs through the middle of October.
Young men and women go into the fields when the crop is ripe and use machetes to cut off the stalks, rip off the seed heads and lay the stalks flat in the fields to cure for several days. On a dry afternoon, stalks are loaded into wagons and brought in the next day to begin processing. The canes are fed through a mill press powered by a rotating team of draft horses. The juice is extracted into an underground piping system and gravity drawn to the stainless steel tanks at the cooking pan. Using scrap lumber, the cooking process uses steam heat to cook the juice. Community member Russell Shirk tends the pan and is learning to take over the operation from Joe. The sorghum goes through several screening processes before it is cooled and fed to another piping system where it is bottled by a group of young women in the cellar. The entire process takes about 30 minutes and is open to the public. A visit to one of our local sorghum mills is one of the best ways to enjoy a beautiful fall day and take home a real homegrown and home-crafted Southern treat.
"I prefer sorghum to honey," explains Joe. "I use it on my oatmeal. It's great with hot biscuits or cornbread." The sweet, thick, sticky syrup is dark amber. If stored in a cupboard at room temperature the shelf life can be as much as a year. According to Joe, "Sorghum is a healthy raw food product, containing high amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium and small amounts of potassium, riboflavin, copper and iron." He is backed by the USDA. The Sweet Sorghum Producer Association's website states that prior to the invention of vitamins, doctors prescribed sorghum as a daily supplement for those people whose diets were low in these nutrients. Sorghum is a versatile sweetener from pancakes to BBQ sauce.