NUNDA, Ohio — A few years ago, when Crist Nisley was growing more corn than he needed and found the market flooded, he thought of selling the surplus, but then he decided it was time to practice guerilla economics. That is, switch from a commodity in over-supply to one in demand.
There wasn’t much out there to replace corn in his crop rotation, but friends, visiting from Tennessee, had once suggested he could get more use out of his maple syrup house by growing sorghum and boiling sorghum syrup in the fall about the time produce production was winding down.
South of the Mason-Dixon Line, there is little maple syrup production. Before the huge sugar producers took over the molasses market, just about every farm had a cane mill or sorghum press. The southern farmer made batch production syrup cooked in a kettle without a lot of quality control. Some of this sorghum syrup was rather strong and not of consistent quality.
Crist realized that with his continuous run sap boiling operation he could have better quality control, a less strong-tasting product and higher production. But would he have a market? With the increasing demand for organic food, he was sure he could readily sell his small production locally.
There was also the question of being able to grow the longer season sorghum cane in slightly cooler central Ohio. With a southeast sloping field that was a week or 10 days ahead to the flatter fields, Crist was certain the sorghum would mature before the mid-October frosts. An early variety of sorghum, Dale, was selected and Crist planted about eight acres.
It matured at the end of September, and his family and neighbors were excited and anxious to process the cane and get the sorghum syrup on the market.
Unlike maple syrup production that depends so much on the weather, freezing nights and sunny days, sorghum syrup production starts when the crop is mature.
First, the leaves are stripped simply by reaching up as high as you can with a pair of heavy gloves, grasp the stalk lightly, bring the hands down stripping the stock of its leaves as you go.
The stalks, or canes, if you prefer, are cut off, the tassels removed and are laid in the field to cure for a few days to reduce some of the excess moisture.
But this year, Crist got a curve thrown at him. It had been a good year, hot weather, timely rains and a bumper crop. It looked like boiling would start a week or so early when, on Sept. 7, an intense, isolated thunder and wind storm tore up a 3-mile swath about two miles wide. The winds flattened barns, tore off roofs and uprooted trees. Field crops were flattened and apple orchards bearing a good crop were stripped naked.
The sorghum was cut and detasseled, but without a third hand to hold the stocks and strip off the leaves, they decided to forgo that chore and it was run through the mill leaves and all.
Sorghum syrup production is a short, but intense, weeklong operation that brings out all available hands to make quick work of a job that fills a slack period in the farm work schedule at this time of year.