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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”