HOWARD, Ohio – We were fortunate here in Knox County this past summer to have had adequate rain along with all those 90-degree days. Most farmers got four cuttings of hay, and bumper crops of corn and soybeans. And our neighbors, the Niseleys, got a good sorghum crop that matured early.
Sorghum is usually considered a more southern crop grown for sorghum syrup and cattle feed. A long season crop that requires much the same growing conditions as corn, it can be ruined for syrup production by an early, hard frost.
The Niseleys have good luck growing an early variety called Dale.
Can’t meet demand. Mass produced and less expensive corn syrup has all but replaced sorghum syrup on the market, except in the South where it’s appreciated and too warm to make maple syrup.
But there is still a niche market for sorghum syrup here in Ohio, and the Niseleys cannot meet the demand.
Maple syrup production fills a slot in the Niseley farm work schedule in the spring and they use the maple sugar house and much of the same maple syrup production equipment to make sorghum syrup during a slack period in the fall.
Instead of tapping trees, they harvest sorghum that grows and looks at a distance much like corn.
How it’s done. The sorghum crop is cut, leaves are stripped and it’s detasseled, all by hand, which makes it, like maple syrup, a rather labor-intensive product.
The 10- to 12-foot stalks are carted to a pair of sorghum presses powered by draft horses. The stalks are hand-fed into the presses, which means responsible workers trade jobs frequently so no one’s attention lags.
The Niseleys’ presses are more than 100 years old. One of heavy iron casting presses was made by John Deere and the other by the Chattanooga Plow Co. Huge cylinders squeeze the stalks dry. The juice is extracted and flows by gravity to recycled bulk milk tanks at the maple sugar shack.
About 7 or 8 gallons of sorghum sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup, as compared to the 20 to 40 gallons of maple sap needed to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
As in maple syrup production, the sorghum sap is boiled to the right consistency, drawn off, cooled, and then bottled.
The quality of batch production varies and it’s not the uniform product required for mass commercial sales. The continuous-run evaporator the Niseleys use allows greater production and a more uniform product.
Pay attention. Sorghum syrup production requires more experience and attention to details than maple syrup.
The continuous-run evaporator has two compartments, a large main pan and a smaller finishing pan on the side. The main pan is fired by wood and can use up to two cords of wood per day. The finishing pan has a gas heating assist for better temperature control.
At startup, water in the pan is brought to a rolling boil, then sorghum sap is introduced and the temperature is raised to a constant 232 F.
Chris Niseley carefully monitors the temperature, the sap flow and skims any foam that forms on the surface of the boiling syrup. Hot sap is drawn into the finishing pan and the hot, finished product is drawn off, cooled over spring water fed plates and bottled.
The finished product has a light amber color, and more importantly, has the mild less strong taste of some batch-produced sorghum syrups.
Family lends hand. The maple and sorghum syrup seasons are short, but exciting, for the Niseley family. The work is intense for a few days, and all the family and a few neighbors turn out to make it a festive occasion.
They could sell more syrup, but they never try to produce more than their labor supply can comfortably handle. They simply want to supply their needs, not greed, and do it without exploiting natural resources or the environment.
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