Time To Buy Sorghum Seeds, and National Organics Leader Michael Bomford Answers a Sorghum Question

Late March, even with snow still on the ground—do you have your sweet sorghum seeds yet? Townsend Sorghum Mill still has seeds, and you still have time to prepare to plant in May.

When I wrote a small book on sweet sorghum's many virtues, I struggled to find good information about how and when sorghum reached the USA from its home in Africa. I made guesses, but stuck to the main information I could find, even though I thought "1853" and "mid-1800s" might be late, given that the oldest Kentuckians I knew as a child treated sorghum syrup as if no Kentucky table or pantry had ever lacked it.

Recently I bumped into Dr. Michael Bomford's terrific Organic Sweet Sorghum & Edamame Soybean (pdf) presentation online. Dr. Bomford, among many other accomplishments, teaches at both Kentucky State University and the University of Kentucky. Each time I hear him speak, I learn. From his online bio: 

His work focuses on organic and sustainable agriculture systems suitable for adoption by small farms operating with limited resources. His projects examine practical ways to reduce food system energy use and meet farm energy needs using renewable resources produced on-farm.

He teaches Kentuckians how to sustain ourselves from our own resources and make sure our great-grandchildren can do the same. So, after learning from Dr. Bomford's online presentation that sorghum had reached the USA in 1757, I took keyboard in hand and did a bit of research using the sources he cited. I enjoyed visiting the online National Archives to see a letter from Benjamin Franklin to his sister Jane Mecom, sent on February 21, 1757, referencing "whisk seed" or broom corn, a sorghum type.

I wrote Dr. Bomford to ask more about sorghum's history in the USA, and he kindly wrote a detailed response. Even more generously, he gave me permission to share his response with you:

The date 1757 that I used in the presentation you found referred to sorghum in general, not sweet sorghum in particular. The date I used came from several sources, but I would bet one could trace them all back to the Benjamin Franklin letter that you linked to in the National Archives. I'm now convinced that sorghum was in North America before 1757, but I can't give you a firm date.

Sorghum has been grown as a major crop in Africa for thousands of years, and was brought here by slaves (and slave traders) who wouldn't have received the credit granted Franklin. Several slave ships stocked up on sorghum in Africa, to provide rations for the journey across the Atlantic (Judith Carney. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. University of California Press, 2011). Maurice Mathews, a politically active English settler in Barbados in the 1670s-90s, reported "Guiney Corne [sorghum] growes very well here..." and naturalist Mark Catesby, writing in Carolina in 1743, says that sorghum "was first introduced from Africa by the negroes" [...] "who make bread of it and boil it in like manner of firmety." (Peter Wood. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. Knopf, 1974).

These first sorghum varieties brought to the Americas probably weren't sweet sorghum, but almost all of the cultivated sorghum varieties belong to a single species, Sorghum bicolor. This includes grain sorghum (milo), sweet sorghum (sorgo), broom corn, Guinea corn and all sorts of others. There's a rather extensive list of names for sorghum at http://www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au/Sorting/Sorghum.html.

Sorghum varieties bred for high sugar content seem to show up in the USA in the mid-1800s.  The Sorghum Handbook (1887) credits an agent of the US Patent Office for bringing over seed from China, via France, in 1854 (https://ia600401.us.archive.org/7/items/sorghumhandbookt01blym/sorghumhandbookt01blym.pdf ). Around the same time, accessions* were brought over from South Africa. The Chinese and African accessions were thought to be closely related. Several works published in the late 1800s treat sweet sorghum as a new crop. It appears that sweet sorghum enjoyed particular success during the Civil War, because northerners were cut off from cane sugar grown in the south.  Agricultural census figures show a peak in sorghum syrup production in 1879, followed by a decline until Prohibition, when it came into favor as a feedstock for moonshine (http://doctorschar.com/features/sweet-sorghum-sorghum-bicolor/#sorghum-history). It looks like 1920 was the all-time high for sorghum syrup production, with almost 50 million gallons made.

Life came from Africa, so it's no wonder sorghum did, too. It's a small thing, but I want to keep telling the story of how sorghum got here. It is my small way of honoring the memory of the people who brought it and so much else that benefits us every day.

Thanks to the unknown bringers, and to the many generations of ancestors who followed them, and thanks to the elders and the teachers like Dr. Michael Bomford as well as newer growers like Country Rock Sorghum and Sweetgrass Granola—and add thanks to the crucial seed producers like Danny Ray Townsend—sorghum flows backward and forward in the stream of true Kentucky food.

Each year, more Kentuckians are trying out this singular crop, and thank goodness! We can sweeten our lives, increase our self-reliance, and even, with restraint, improve our health when we replace refined sugars with Kentucky's natural, anti-oxidant-rich natural sweetener.

* An accession is "A collection of plant material from a particular location."

Rona RobertsComment