By Rick Palsgrove
Fall is a busy time down on the farm as various crops are harvested from the fields, including sorghum which is used to make molasses.
Sorghum molasses is a thick, dark brown syrup used to sweeten many of the cakes, cookies, as well as baked beans made at Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm, which depicts life on an Ohio farm in the 1880s. The molasses can also be poured over biscuits or pancakes.
“Sorghum is very sweet,” said Mike Huels of Slate Run Living Historical Farm. “It’s not as sweet as sugar cane, but it is still very sweet.”
The sorghum is harvested in the fall when it is at its peak. Farm workers strip the leaves from the sorghum stalks and cut off the seed heads. The sorghum stalks are then fed by hand, one-by-one 1880s style, into a horse powered press. As the press turns, it squeezes the juice from the stalks and the juice is then collected in a bucket. The flattened, dry stalks come out the other side of the press and are laid in a circle around the press to give Marcus, the farm’s horse, more traction as he walks around to power the press.
Slate Run Living Historical Farm’s Dave Trotter said the farm uses a sorghum press from the late 19th century made by the Chattanooga Plow Company.
“It’s a simple machine that needs little maintenance,” said Trotter. “It has three gears – one big one on the main cylinder and two on the small cylinders.”
After the sorghum juice is collected, it is poured into a large, flat evaporator pan and boiled over a fire. The thin, green juice slowly boils down into a thick, brown syrup. While it boils, the farmers use a hand held skimmer to remove the impurities that boil to the surface in the evaporator pan.
Huels said it can take around four hours to boil 10 to 12 gallons of sorghum juice down to about two gallons of syrup. He said this is a much better yield than what can be obtained during maple sugar season in the late winter when it takes about 40 gallons of maple tree sap to get a gallon of maple sugar.
Huels said our farming ancestors would use sorghum, maple sap, and honey from beehives to make their own sweeteners because refined sugar purchased from a store could be expensive.
The process of making sorghum molasses takes a lot of work, but the tasty payoff is worth the labor.