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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Making Sorghum Molasses
Making Sorghum Molasses

David Buhrman examines a jar of sorghum molasses.

Making Sorghum Molasses

by Edwin McCoy. Reprinted from This Week, Lewisburg, WV

David Buhrman is keeping a tradition alive – not so much for tradition’s sake, but for his own practical purposes as he and his wife, Rose, go about building their farm some seven miles off Rt. 219 near Friars Hill.

It was not unusual some years ago in mid-October to find many mountain people readying a field of sorghum for the crusher and boiling vat as they worked to render it into molasses. But that yearly activity gradually declined with the increased availability of other commercial sweetners and sugars.

For Burhman, making sorghum molasses was more or less a necessary switch. He had been depending on several hives of bees to provide him with honey, but he and the bees didn’t get along well. “Sorghum is a much safer way to get a sweetner”, Buhrman related. “I still keep one hive of bees for pollination, but any honey they make is theirs.”

Making Sorghum Molasses

Skimming foreign matter from sorghum vat as it is readied to be boiled down to molasses.

Basically a homesteader, Buhrman came to Greenbrier County about eight years ago and bought 75 acres of land on Brushy Flats. He’s been improving parts of that land gradually, and is producing several “labor intensive” crops in an effort to generate some income from the land.

“Basically, I wanted to homestead, but I wanted to do some farming on a small scale, too – we wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible,” Buhrman explained. “But it’s economically difficult to be a small farmer. Actually, I’ve kind of grown into it. I learned you have to be a self-starter to be a farmer, although there is a lot of free time.”

Buhrman’s farm is now producing several berry crops, vegetables that he sells locally, a pumpkin crop, and the sorghum.

“We have just a small number of usable acres, so we’ve gone to the labor intensive crops, such as strawberries, tomatoes, sorghum, that require more labor, but you get a better price for them, too,” Buhrman explained. “With three acres of wheat, I might get $120 an acre off of it, but with labor intensive crops I can get a better price – as much as $1000 an acre.”

Making Sorghum Molasses

David Buhrman at the edge of the sorghum field.

From the acre of sorghum he planted this spring on a piece of land he is renting, Buhrman expects to get about 50 gallons of syrup, not as much as he had hoped. “You can get up to 150 gallons an acre, but we won’t get that,” he said. “The fertility of the soil is a factor – it’s not in good shape, and the weather had something to do with it. Sorghum likes hot weather and it hasn’t been a hot summer.”

The sorghum in the field looks a great deal like corn, except Buhrman pointed out, it doesn’t have any ears.

In order to turn the stalks of sorghum into molasses, it takes quite a bit of hand labor – to get that labor, Buhrman sharecrops with some of his neighbors. He credits them with the hours they work for him and shares part of the crop with them – he does the same with his berries and other crops, or they trade out labor.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Robert Chamberland of Renick, West Virginia, cuts seed heads off the sorghum stalks before it goes through the crusher.

Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut (this year Buhrman used a corn binder), then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup. That’s bottled and ready for use as a sweetner, for pancakes, as a yeast activator for breads and more.

Buhrman’s first batch of sorghum molasses three years ago was “a little runny,” but since then he’s developed a pretty good idea of what he’s doing. He bought the equipment he needed to crush and boil the syrup from a Butler Mountain man and got his first instructions from him too; plus he got some help from some Pocahontas County friends who make maple syrup.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Glenn Singer and Michelle Paul, both of Friars Hill, feed sorghum stalks into tractor-run crusher. The syrup is collected, after being strained, in the washtub.

This year’s sorghum will be Buhrman’s first real commercial crop, he said, although he has sold some in the past, as he tries to become more efficient. “It wasn’t as slick an operation as it is now, but we get a little more efficient each year,” Buhrman said. “The trick is to get efficient enough that you’re doing something you can afford to do and people can afford to buy it – but you’re still doing it on a human level,” he continued.

Buhrman also likes the idea of neighbors helping neighbors as was the case in preparing the sorghum. “I like the idea of community parties… the idea of having work that you all can work on. You get a real sense of community,” Buhrman said. “The idea of a neighborhood community where you can call on friends on a weekend to raise a barn, move a log cabin or make sorghum.”

Making Sorghum Molasses

Glenn Singer and Michelle Paul feed stalks of sorghum into crusher.

Spotlight On: People

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Portrait of a Garden

Portrait of a Garden

As the seasons slip by at a centuries-old Dutch estate, an 85-year-old pruning master and the owner work on cultivating crops in the kitchen garden. To do this successfully requires a degree of obsessiveness, the old man explains in this calm, observational documentary. The pruning master still works every day. It would be easier if he were only 60 and young.

Field Weeds and Street Boys

Field Weeds and Street Boys

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So, our farming system to feed hungry street boys is to have them farm “weeds”. As we have all experienced, weeds are perfectly adapted to their climate, are robust and need no fertilizer nor any of the insecticides to enhance a good crop. Because we are aiming for long term diversified permaculture (this is a Shea native tree area), we needed some very quick marketable crops while we wait for the trees to mature. These field weeds intentionally farmed have a ready market in the big city 5 km north.

Parasitic Experiences

Parasitic Experiences

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It all started with a sign. “We Have Worms.” It’s not complicated to make — I tore the cardboard box, handed it to Andy, and he wrote on it with a black magic marker and hung it in the store window. Everyone knows what it means, it means that if you’re not gonna go diggin’ for the earthworms yourself, you come in and and buy bait from him. It’s a seasonal sign; we scrap it every Autumn. No biggie.

A Bad Day in Harmony

A Bad Day in Harmony

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Gary, hoping that that was the lot, revved up the big yellow machine in eager anticipation but once again I called a halt and disappeared in the direction of the house. When I reappeared at the graveside holding a dead cat by the tail Gary shut the machine down completely, remained totally silent for what seemed like a long time, and then leaned out of the cab and with a look of mock concern on his face said in his dry manner, “Where did you say the wife and kids are?”

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

What We Really Lose

What We Really Lose

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A few minutes with my Old Man will bring you stories Hollywood could never write. Stories of driving the canned milk to town at age 12 in the family pickup, not having a car to drive, driving new Cadillacs, eating home raised meals, eating at the Four Seasons as Presidents walked out while he was walking in, farming with only horses, then new tractors, then big tractors, then not farming, then doing it again with 50 year old tractors, then once more with no tractors.

Elsa

Elsa

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I headed out with a gut feeling not that something was wrong, but that in these conditions there soon enough would be if I did not try. I made my way more or less by instinct across the open field and through the frozen swamp. In amongst saplings, rocks, and old rusty metal and wire there is a large, red haired calf half steaming where mom is aggressively licking her and the other half is iced over where her hooves and legs appear frozen to the ground.

Students on the Lines

Students on the Lines & McD Grain Indicator Plate

from issue:

We conclude our online presentation of Volume 41 Issue 2 with beautiful photos from Walt Bernard’s Workhorse Workshops (www.workhorseworkshops.com) and some hard-to-find info on the McCormick-Deering Plain Fluted Feed “R” Grain Drill Grain Indicator Plate.

Rainshadow Organics Saralee and the Interns

Rainshadow Organics: Saralee & the Interns

Rainshadow Organics in Central Oregon is a really big small farm. As part of their mission to produce and promote good food, they participate in the Rogue Farm Corps internship program. This season they have 7 interns who made time during their lunch break to speak to us about the program.

NYFC Bootstrap Videos The Golden Yoke

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I couldn’t have been happier to collaborate with The National Young Farmers Coaltion again when they called up about being involved in their Bootstrap Blog Series. In 2013, all of their bloggers were young and beginning lady dairy farmers, and they invited us on board to consult and collaborate in the production of videos of each farmer contributor to the blog series.

Bud & Mary Rickett

Buck & Mary Rickett: Successful Small Farmers

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Ten years ago I answered a classified ad and went to a small western Oregon farm to look at some young laying hens that were for sale. That visit to Buck and Mary Rickett’s place made a quiet impression on me that has lasted to this day. On that first visit in ’71 my eager new farmer’s eye and ear absorbed as much as possible of what seemed like an unusual successful, small operation. I asked what must have seemed like an endless stream of questions on that early visit.

Cindys Curds & Whey

Cindy’s Curds & Whey

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The Burgess dairy farm and cheese factory are sustainable operations, meaning that nearly every by-product is re-used or recycled. For example, the usually-discarded whey goes to feed their own pigs, producing an exceptionally tasty, lean pork. Whey is the liquid portion of milk that develops after the milk protein has coagulated, and contains water, milk sugar, albuminous proteins, and minerals.

Birth of a Farm

Birth of a Farm

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“Isn’t it nice?” I offer to my supper companions, “to see our beautiful horses right while we’re eating? I feel like I’m on a Kentucky horse farm, with rolling bluegrass vistas.” I sweep my arm dramatically towards the view, the rigged up electric fence, the lawn straggling down to the pond, the three horses, one of whom is relieving herself at the moment. “Oh, huh,” he answers. “I was thinking it was more like a cheesy bed and breakfast.”

Honoring Our Teachers

Honoring Our Teachers

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I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

Farmrun - Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor is an educational farm on Shelter Island, whose mission is to cultivate, preserve, and share these lands, buildings, and stories — inviting new thought about the importance of food, culture and place in our daily lives.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The Craft of the Wheelwright

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In these days of standardization and the extensive use of metal wheels you might think there is little call for the centuries old craft of wheelwrighting, but the many demands on the skills of Gus Kitson in Suffolk, England, show this to be very far from the truth. Despite many years experience of renovating all types of wagons and wheels even Gus can still be surprised by the types of items for which new or restored wooden wheels are required.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT