Sweet Privilege: Visiting Barr Farms' First Sorghum-Making in 70 Years

It's always a privilege to witness a birth. A rebirth is even more rare. I jumped at the opportunity to "help" restart sweet sorghum production, after a lapse of at least 70 years, at Barr Farms, a seventh generation family farm near Rhodelia, Kentucky. "Help" is in quotation marks, because, in my case, I translated that verb to mean "take photos and write about." Gary Barr (right, below) indulged my nosing around even though I announced in advance I would not be doing much real work. Whether one actually helps or merely hangs out while the syrup reduces by about 90 percent, sorghum-making is one of the most natural, delightful community-gathering events on any farm. I cherished the Barr Farms invitation.

Gary cooked Barr Farms' first present-day sorghum batch in a stainless steel cooker, over a hot propane gas fire. He started with about 30 gallons of juice pressed from the stalks of the heirloom Mennonite variety of sorghum he had planted in June. This method yielded more than three gallons of good sorghum, slooooowly. Gary chose the vat method, instead of the more familiar flat cooking pan, because he had read the big pot was less likely to yield burned syrup at the end. As a first time sorghum cook, Gary wanted to take every precaution against wasting both work and precious sorghum juice.

I visited Barr Farms during a couple of early hours of cooking the first batch on Saturday, September 28, 2013. While I stayed near the cooking, a crew of five worked in the sorghum patch, stripping leaves, cutting and de-heading the next batch of cane, loading it onto a hay wagon, hauling it to the cooking site. 

One reason Gary chose the Mennonite sorghum variety: in addition to its sorghum-syrup making potential, its seedheads have many uses, multiplying the value of the crop. 

Hanna Anna Ruth, a gorgeous Suffolk Punch, provided the horsepower for the rebuilt Chattanooga Plow Company mill intended to be pulled by two horses. Notice her lovely sorghum caramel color fits the occasion beautifully.

The rebuilt sorghum mill comes with forged-in instructions. 

After feeding the cane in "large end foremost," green juice heads one way, and spent cane, called "bagasse," goes another. Beyond yielding the sweet syrup we enjoy so much, the sweet sorghum plant's many parts have myriad uses, including paper-making (Philippines) and, most prominently, bio-fuel. Sweet sorghum is a 3F crop, providing food, fuel, and fiber. (See here and here to head down the bio-fuels/ethanol path. We'll stick with sweet sorghum syrup in this post.) 

Barr Farms plans for the Barr bagasse? Feed it to cattle.

The freshly pressed juice from those stalks looks neon green. 

I got to help skim a little. Skimming removes some of the starches and bits of cane that rise to the surface as the juice heats up. Skimming struck me as perfect communal work, good for mind and spirit, repetitive, undemanding, hard to mess up, and requiring little enough attention so one could comfortably carry on lots of good conversation and story-telling while being a little bit useful.

Skimmers also get to appreciate the sorghum dragon art and other fanciful creatures that swim up to the surface. 

I had to leave lovely near-Rhodelia and come back to central Kentucky well before the first batch of sorghum cane juice reached 226 degrees Fahrenheit and turned the color of Hanna Anna Ruth's coat. It eventually did complete that transformation, though, and Gary Barr posted beautiful facebook photos to prove it.

Success with the very first batch of sorghum syrup is far from a given. The producer faces hundreds of variables, including weather, soil, seed variety, timing, labor, milling anomalies, heat source, temperature control, cooking challenges, skimming, skimming, skimming...and more.  Congratulations to Gary and all at Barr Farms for making the choices, finding the necessary patience, and having the good fortune of first time success.

Next year, Barr Farms plans to expand sorghum production, from 0.33 acre to more than an acre. Next year’s field has been prepared, including planting with appropriate cover crops. I know this because Barr Farms’ super-intern/world traveler/ FreeLance Farmer Chick/writer/blogger Lisa Munniksma did the planting and told me about it. In fact, she told me about the Barr Farms sorghum renewal effort. I am so glad she did. Thank you, Lisa. 

With its return to sweet sorghum production, Barr Farms joins a national Sweet Sorghum Revival. Amen to Missouri super-sorghum-evangelist Sherry Leverich Tucker, the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, Louisville Chef Edward Lee and others who lead us down the path of getting this righteous, pure, hand-made, freedom food into its rightful place: on every table.


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