Pressing on: Sorghum complements farm’s maple syrup production


JELLOWAY, Ohio – One of the first lessons they teach in economics class is economics is about getting the most benefits from resources that are scarce.
That philosophy is practiced at the Nisley farm on Pealer Mills Road at Jelloway, Ohio.
They produce maple syrup in March to fill a slack time in their labor schedule, and when their produce business slows down in late September, they open their sugarhouse again to produce sorghum molasses.
Friends from Kentucky who visited during maple syrup season suggested Nisley might try sorghum molasses production in the fall after the vegetable-growing season ended.
Good idea. It sounded like a good idea, but Chris Nisley questioned whether or not he could grow the long season sorghum this far north.
A sorghum variety called Dale was recommended and he planted a small patch in early May. With a near 150 frost-free-day growing season, it matured right on time.
The next year, he planted about 8 acres of sorghum in contour strips on a high slope that would get the early sun.
To extract the sorghum juice or sap, the stocks have to be run through a press. But first the leaves have to be stripped by hand from the 8- to 10-foot stalks.
With heavy gloves, you must reach as high as you can, grasp the sorghum stalk and bring your hands down to the ground, stripping the leaves off as you go.
The stalks are then cut off at the ground and laid where the seed heads are cut off before being carted to the sorghum presses.
Work. Nisley plants only what his and a neighboring family can properly care for and harvest within reasonable working hours.
From the field, the sorghum stalks are carted to a pair of horse-powered sorghum presses or cane mills set on a knoll near the maple sugar house.
The Chattanooga Plow Co. and the John Deere presses the Nisleys have are probably a century old. Ruggedly built and run at slow speeds, they don’t show a lot of wear and may see another century.
Presses. The sorghum presses consist of three steel drums, geared together and turned by a spindle on the top that has a lever, a long pole attached.
The power source, a horse, is hitched to the pole and walks in a circle approximately 60 feet in diameter, turning the press drums at slow speed. The drums on the presses are set 1/8-inch and 1/16-inch apart.
Sorghum stocks are fed by hand between the first two drums set 1/8-inch apart and are carried through the second, squeezing them nearly dry.
The green-colored juice, or sap, is carried by gravity through a pipe into a holding tank next to the sugarhouse.
Boiling sorghum molasses requires more experience and attention to detail than making maple syrup.
Since it requires only 7 gallons of sorghum sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup (maple syrup requires 20 or more), the process moves quickly and two presses are needed, even with a head start, to stay ahead of Nisley, who boils sorghum sap at the rate of about 120 gallons per hour.
The continuous-run evaporator Nisley uses allows more production and a more uniform product.
How it works. At startup, water in the evaporator pan is brought to a rolling boil, the sorghum sap is introduced and the temperature is raised to a steady 232 degrees F.
This evaporator has two compartments, a large main pan and a smaller finishing pan on the side. The main pan of the evaporator is fired with wood that can consume up to two cords on a busy day, and the small finishing pan is gas fired for better control.
A continuous flow of sap is introduced into the main pan where Nisley carefully monitors the temperature and skims green chlorophyll foam that forms on the surface.
Hot sap from the main pan is drawn into the finishing pan and the finished product is run over spring-water cooling plates before being bottled and labeled.
The finished product has a light amber color, and more important, has a mild taste.


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