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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 PDT

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: Farming Systems & Approaches

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

by:
from issue:

Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on.

English Sheaf Knots

English Sheaf Knots

Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

by:
from issue:

It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food-Energy: the Fragile Link Between Resources & Population

by:
from issue:

Now, after a one lifetime span of almost free energy and resultant copious food, the entire world faces the imminent decline (and eventual demise) of finite, fossil-fuel capital. Without fossil fuels, food can no longer be produced in one area and shipped thousands of miles to market. To suggest that the world will be able to feed the UN projected population of nine billion by 2050 is totally incomprehensible in the face of declining oil.

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.

The Farmer and the Horse

The Farmer & The Horse

In New Jersey — land of The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and the Turnpike — farmland is more expensive than anywhere else. It’s not an easy place to try to start a career as a farmer. But for a new generation of farmers inspired by sustainability, everything seems possible. Even a farm powered by draft horses.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

by:
from issue:

At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Cayuse Vineyards

Small Farm, USA: Cayuse Vineyards

by:
from issue:

How did the grape find itself here on the outskirts of Milton? If you ask one man, Christophe Baron, the answer is simple. “It’s the cobblestone. (The ground) reminds me of home”. For Christophe, home refers to France and the stone littered earth from which many famous French wines grow. Hailing from a family of vigneron champenois, Mr. Baron came upon this corner of the state by chance, saw its signature geology, and decided to establish his domaine right here in northeast Oregon.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Cultivating Questions Cultivator Setups and Deer Fencing

Cultivating Questions: Cultivator Set-ups and Deer Fencing

We know all too well the frustration of putting your heart and soul into a crop only to have the wildlife consume it before you can get it harvested let alone to market. Our farm sits next to several thousand acres of state game lands and is the only produce operation in the area. As you can imagine, deer pressure can be intense. Neighbors have counted herds of 20 or more in our pastures.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

by: ,
from issue:

If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

Mayfield Farm

Mayfield Farm, New South Wales, Australia

by:
from issue:

Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 3

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 3

Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.

Soil, Vegetation, and Acidity

From Dusty Shelves: Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide teaches us about soil acidity.

Back to the Land

Back to the Land

by:
from issue:

Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014. In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.

Laying Out Fields For Plowing

Laying Out Fields For Plowing

from issue:

Before starting to plow a field much time can be saved if the field is first staked out in uniform width lands. Methods that leave dead furrows running down the slope should be avoided, as water may collect in them and cause serious erosion. The method of starting at the sides and plowing around and around to finish in the center of the field will, if practiced year after year, create low areas at the dead furrows.

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.

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