Sweet Sorghum Harvest
Buster Norton feeds a half-dozen sorghum stalks into a primitive metal press as a harnessed, chestnut-hued horse slowly walks in circles, pulling a wooden post that turns a cylinder that chews up the cane. A steady stream of raw, pale-green juice flows out the other side of the press and into a cheesecloth-topped barrel. In a few days, when about 50 gallons have been squeezed from the sorghum, 66-year-old Norton and his helpers will boil the juice in a large trough over a wood-burning stove, pushing the bubbling liquid around with a strainer-like “skimmer” to keep it from scorching and painstakingly feeding the fire for five or six hours. The payoff: a few dozen quart jars filled with thick, amber-colored sorghum syrup – or, as it’s called in Western North Carolina, “molasses” (though real molasses is actually a byproduct of sugarcane) – still warm and ready to drizzle on biscuits and pancakes, add to cookie recipes, or sweeten barbecue sauce, baked beans or bread.
“The hardest part is knowing when to take it off [the burner] and how to get the right consistency,” says Norton, who primarily grows burley tobacco and corn at his East Fork Farm in the small community of Grapevine, north of Asheville. “It will be either too thin or too thick, and you can ruin a run in two minutes. The stripping is the hardest work, but the most critical time and the most critical decision is knowing when [the cooking] gets finished.”
Growing up, Norton watched his dad and uncle make the sweet stuff the same way, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he planted a quarter-acre plot and made his first batch with several of his neighbors. “It was just a friendship thing, a way to have a good time while we made molasses,” he says. “We wanted to let the kids and the community see how it was done. And it grew from there.”
Harvesting and syrup-making take place in late September and early October, and area residents celebrate with an annual festival.
“There is more work in making it than you can realize,” says Norton, who also drives a school bus. “You have to plant the field, kick the weeds out, strip [the sorghum cane], cut the heads off, before we get to making the molasses. And then of course you got to run it through the mill, and that takes quite a while. So it’s not a real fast project. And then the boiling starts.”
For Norton, the camaraderie of sorghum syrup production outweighs the long days of toil and sweat. “We have a lot of visitors come by, almost every day,” he says. “So it does create kind of a unity in the community. And everybody asks me: When are you going to start making it?”
Youth and Tradition
From start to finish, Jason Davis’ sorghum-making operation closely resembles Norton’s, except for one thing: Instead of horses or mules, his cane press runs via a power takeoff (PTO) shaft fastened to an idling tractor. Still, according to Davis, 39, who owns North River Farms in Mills River and also serves as a fire department lieutenant, the process is “very, very hard work for very little profit. It just takes so much manual labor and it’s time-consuming. I think that’s why not as many people make it as they used to.”
Davis remembers watching his grandfather cook up “old-timey sugar drip molasses” on the family farm in Leicester when he was little, then helping out as a teenager. Three years ago, Davis’ mentor gave him his equipment, including the mill, cooking pan and furnace, which now sits on the farm Davis established in 1999 with hay, burley tobacco and corn crops. (He later added vegetables.) His grandfather shared something else too: the sorghum seed handed down through the family for decades and sown year after year. North River Farms now maintains about an acre of sorghum cane each year.
Davis, who says that agriculture is in his blood, has made syrup-making part of an agritourism initiative that includes educating the public about best-practice land management and conservation of the watershed surrounding his farm. From kindergarteners to seniors, visitors often gather at a specially constructed building in the fall to watch the sticky treat generated the old-fashioned way.
Perhaps most importantly, producing sorghum syrup allows Davis to carry on a treasured family tradition. “Family pride is something that my grandfather instilled in me, something that was passed down to him from his grandfather and father,” he says. “I want to pass it down to my three boys, who are 10, 5 and 2. It’s important to me to be able to pass all of our farming down to the next generation.”
– Nancy Henderson