Sorghum production not for the weak

SYCAMORE VALLEY, Ohio — What was once a game of “Get the Pirate,” is now a work of art.

When Dennis Clift was growing up, his brother would plant sorghum. To make the work of sorghum harvesting more appealing to the young Clift, his family would say it was “pirate fighting time,” meaning the sorghum was the pirates and they had to be cut down.

Tradition

Today, Clift wants to revive the art of sorghum production. He said sorghum production is time-consuming and work-intensive but “so worth it in the end.”

“I just want to keep the tradition alive. It’s dying partly because it can be difficult to produce on a small producer level,” said Clift.

Clift works with his wife Elaine, sons Jeremy and Casey, and daughter Jessica to produce the syrup.

Clift said his interest was piqued when he was in high school. He was in the vocational agriculture program and attended the Farm Science Review. While at the Review, he got his first glimpse of producing sorghum.

“I watched it all day. While the other kids were looking at the tractors, I just sat there and watched them. That was many years ago,” said Clift. “I’ll never forgetI bought my mom a quart. You would have sworn I gave her a diamond ring.”

He said a few years ago he finally had the time and wanted to learn the basics of production. He credits Robert Rea from Columbiana County with getting him started.

Planting

Clift said he planted the seeds a few years ago. He said that was the easy part. Then a few months later, he realized he didn’t have the equipment necessary to do anything with it. Searching online, he found a mill and furnace in Malta, Ohio.

He and his family used the furnace for the first year, but then built their own.

A family friend, Gene Davis, helped the Clifts build an evaporating plan. In exchange for a pint of sorghum, Davis built a pan out of stainless steel for the furnace.

The sorghum is harvested by hand by the Clift family and friends and then it is crushed by a mill originally built in the 1920s in Columbus, Ohio, using 22 tons of crushing pressure.

“It has to be a slow and easy pressure. If you go too fast, you won’t get the juice out of the plant,” said Clift.

Tricky business

Some growers recently gathered at the Clift farm admitted the production of the sorghum can be tricky. Once it is cut and the juice is gathered, cooking it down is the next part. The sorghum cannot be cooked at a high temperature too quickly; it must be a slow process with no direct heat.

As the impurities float to the top, the producer has to skim them off the top of the syrup.

“Skimming is the key,” said grower Hugh Hyre.

“The kill of the operator in skimming is the key to the sorghum operation,” Clift agreed.

It is possible to get 16 ounces of sorghum juice out of one stalk. The group said half of the weight of the plant is liquid and 12 percent of that liquid uncooked is sugar.

Clift said once the liquid is cooked down, the final product contains 78-80 percent sugar.

Product density

However, different areas and different seeds produce different product density.  He said every 13 gallons of sorghum produces one gallon of finished sorghum.

Hyre, who also produces maple syrup on his farm, said in comparison, his maple syrup is usually about a 40:1 ratio, meaning 40 gallons of maple liquid to one gallon of syrup.

He added that sorghum is a great complement for maple syrup producers. Maple syrup is produced in early spring and sorghum syrup is produced in late summer or early fall and both use the same production equipment.

Heirloom varieties

Clift said most sorghum he grows is of a heirloom variety, and many producers collect their own seed and use it from year to year. Hybrid seed is available and many sorghum producers are trying it, although he has not experienced a good crop with it.

Growing market

Hyre and Clift feel sorghum is a product is perfect for the farm-to-table direct marketing movement. Clift produced almost several hundred pints last year and by November, they were gone.

Hyre had much of the same thing happen, and also sold out of the sorghum syrup he produced last year.

Hyre and Clift hope to build a renewed interest in sorghum production so that it does not become a lost art. In fact, Clift invites anyone interested to his farm Sept. 7 to witness sorghum production.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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