Growing, Harvesting & Processing Sorghum

Susan Tipton-Fox
Tuesday, 6th June 2017

How to grow sorghum, and turn it into syrup, fresh juice and gluten free flour. A great addition to any small farm or enterprise.

We are a small farm and we stick mainly with the traditional crops that have always been grown here in the mountains (Western North Carolina).
 Although, we try to find more economical ways of growing, processing and/or marketing those crops...which tends to be non-traditional ways. 
I'm a genealogy nut so I love to find out what my ancestors were growing and how. I want to connect land and family. I found an 1880 Agricultural Census with my great great grandfather listed.
 In that time molasses, maple syrup, hops, wine, cheese and milk were a few listed. I was so excited! If they could produce those then we could surely do it now!

Is it Cane or Sorghum?

We tried sorghum cane because we knew our land did well with corn and since they require much of the same nutrients we went with this. We needed another ‘sweet’ option here on the farm too (we tap maple trees and have bee hives). We’ve always called it ‘cane’ – sorghum is known by many names; sweet sorghum, sorghum cane and all are correct. It is actually a type of grass not unlike corn. Sorghum actually looks like a small variety of corn when growing. There are larger varieties of cane but, most of those are grown in South America and other hotter climates. Sorghum produces a darker syrup than sugar cane.

Getting Started...Where to find Seed

We've been growing cane now for over seven years and save seed each year. We chose Rox Orange which is a versatile cane. When getting started I recommend buying seed from a reputable dealer. There are many out there and many choices when deciding which seed to buy. A company we have used here in the US is Sustainable Seed Company http://sustainableseedco.com/sorghum/. If you are looking for untreated seed make sure that is listed because too often you'll receive seed that has been treated. When you buy ‘organic’ this will be untreated seed.  There are many varieties of sorghum and many purposes. You can use the sorghum for juice, making molasses, using seed heads for making gluten-free flour, seed heads for animal/bird feed, and the bagasse (scraps from juicing) for livestock feed.

When to Plant

We usually plant our seed when we plant our corn. We are in US Zone 7 (UK zone 7a) and usually don't have a hard frost after May 10th. When the ground becomes warm, at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit, we start planting our seed. We don't use a seed sower, we just sow by hand. The seeds are very small so the seeds are sown thickly. If you have a corn planter there are attachments that would accommodate this size seed. The concerns for this crop is too much rainfall that can loosen the ground and/or wind that can cause ‘lodging’. It is also very hard to ‘weed’ this crop since it is planted so densely but do make sure weeds are removed from between the rows. 

When and How to Harvest

Days to maturity vary between varieties. The longer it is left to mature, the sweeter the juice will be. For silage maturity is around 80 days. We like to start cutting cane by the second week in September and you before the first hard frost. You simply cut the stalks as close to the ground as possible and gather. I use my Daddys’ old tobacco knife to cut cane.

Some people argue that stripping the leaves first is best. Some will strip the leaves and top the seed heads and leave a few days before gathering. There is some research that says this will increase sugar content and yields while other research says it makes no difference in the outcome. We choose to not strip the leaves and seed heads first.

The stalks lose moisture/juice from evaporation after cutting so make sure you’re ready to process all the cane you gather in the same day –  we only process a limited amount at a time.

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How to ‘juice’ the cane

Milling equipment can be expensive, especially if you’re just starting out or have a ‘backyard’ crop. If you have a mill already, then you can use this. They are hard to come by now – we heard of one the other day that was sold for $700. The old ones were set up to use a horse or mule to turn the mill which would grind the cane stalks. Now, some of the mills are set-up to run by tractor. So, using a cane mill you would also need a horse or tractor to operate.

Alan and I thought up another way of juicing the cane. It is ALL manual but it gets the job done.  We found an old ‘wringer type’ roller that was used on wringer washing machines and we bolted to a metal stand. Always be aware you are working with a food product and apply food safety rules – we made sure the rollers were sterilized before using. The stalks can be crushed first with a meat tenderizer and then run through the wringers – this works great. A container is set below the rollers to collect the juice as it comes out. 

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To prepare the cane stalks for juicing, we strip the leaves (which is fed to the goats in small amounts), and the seed heads are cut off and put in boxes to be dried later for grinding into flour.

We cut the stalks in 2-3ft lengths to make handling easier, then we run through the wringers. If there is a lot of juice coming out we’ll put those through again. It takes approximately 30-40 stalks to get 1 gallon of raw fresh juice. For those that are interested in selling fresh juice to restaurants or other markets, there are juicing machines but they are very expensive.

There are a lot of health benefits to the raw fresh juice so this could become a unique crop and market. If you are looking for an agri-tourism angle to your farm this could be a possibility. We sell the fresh juice for $30.00/gallon.

After juicing, the liquid must be strained to remove grit and other debris – we use a colander and linen or cheese cloth. Refrigerate the resulting liquid immediately unless you’re taking it straight to market or using it.

This juice is considered ‘raw’ fresh sorghum cane juice. The juice needs to be processed immediately as it will spoil in seven days. To combat that you can freeze the juice if not using right away. Another option is to pasteurize (boil) and can. When working with any food product that is to be sold to the public, make sure you follow all state and county requirements.

Making Molasses/Syrup

For making molasses, (some people call this syrup,) we use a woodfire. Our cooking method is very basic – more or less a pitfire as we don’t make large batches of molasses. We never use propane – the fumes can give an ‘off’ taste to your product.

We can’t be competitive with the molasses market because there are too many farms in our area that are making them commercially – that’s why we search out other value-added ways to market.

Again, you need about 10 gallons of fresh juice to cook down to about 1 gallon syrup/molasses.  Cooking with wood is more economical for us because we save ‘scrap’ wood that falls from dead trees and other branches we can collect. Electric can be used, but it can be expensive if you’re not working up a lot of juice. Equipment can be very expensive unless this is going to be a large venture. One thing you might want to check into is your local Cooperative Extension Agency.  They often have Commercial/Certified kitchens with some of this equipment and kitchen time available at a small fee.

When starting to cook the juice we use stainless steel stockpots because ? This cooking is a slow process because you want to reach a certain slow boil and keep it continuous. Ten gallons can take 10-12 hours of cooking at least. Since the sorghum juice is ‘sugar’, you don’t want a hot, rapid boil as it can scorch/burn and cause the molasses to not taste right. The syrup/molasses will begin to thicken and turn a dark color. Be aware that some varieties of sorghum will still have a greenish hue when it is done. When you think your molasses are ready ladle into sterilized jars.

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Using Sorghum Seed Heads (lead pic)

There are several ways to process your sorghum seed heads. As I stated earlier, when removing the seed heads, put them in boxes until drying and processing. These seed heads are grain, so care must be taken in making sure they are mature and dry before using. They can be spread out on screens and left to dry in the sun or in covered areas. They can also be bundled and hung from rafters/beams like hanging corn. After drying, the seeds will darken in color…don’t use any that appear green if using for flour.

To use for flour, the seeds must first be thrashed. If you have a grain thrasher that is great – we use the hand thrashing method. Very simply, we take the seed heads and hit them over the inside of a container and the seeds loosen and fall into the container. After you have your loosened seeds, put those in a fine sieve…this separates out the chaff and other debris. The cleaned seed can now be put into a blender, food processor or mill to grind into a fine flour.

Don’t want to go the route of making flour? You could sell the seeds to bakeries for them to grind themselves or sell the seed. In our state we have to carry a Seed Dealers license to sell the seed.

Selling Directly from the Field

Want less ‘hands on’ from your specialty crop?  Another option is selling your crop directly from the field.

We have a local brewery, Fonta Flora Brewery, who is determined to use local ingredients and in so doing help the farmers. We are very grateful they have chosen our small farm to work with.  They came out to the farm and cut their own sorghum cane to use in their specialty beer. Not only did they use the cane juice but also roasted the seed heads and used some of our Bloody Butcher corn. They called this mixture Bloody Butcher Appalachian Grisette.

When selling from the field and in bulk you can offer your customers a discount on the product.  We sell the stalk (with seed head) from the field at $.50/stalk.

There’s almost no waste in this product. Since this is in the same family as broomcorn, the stems of the seed heads (after thrashing) can be fashioned into brooms or used as ‘scrubbers’ for your dishes! The spent canes, called bagasse, can be given to livestock to eat.

So, get out there and raise a little ‘cane’!

Susan Tipton-Fox writes and teaches at The Mushroom Hut @ Fox Farms, a CSA in Burnsville, North Carolina. She teaches at Mayland Community College, presents on-farm workshops and tries to keep the knowledge and culture of the Appalachian Mountains and her Native American roots alive and thriving by seed saving, crafts, canning/preserving, making cheese (using goats' milk), growing and grinding corn, making soap and much more.

Useful links

Also from Susan:

Making flower essence jellies

How to make maple and birch syrup

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