Sorghum & broomcorn

Sorghum is a fascinating crop that we’ve grown for the past two years. Biologically, it is a grass native to Africa. It acts like a cross between corn and sugar cane, with a very tall, strong corn-like stalk that is filled with a sugary juice. As a drought-tolerant crop, it grows very well for us, producing stalks up to 12′ high with very little inputs or maintenance. We grow two varieties, sweet sorghum (top right) and broomcorn (top left). The latter is grown primarily for its large, fanned-out seedhead, which was traditionally used to make sturdy brooms but is also quite attractive as a decorative item. The former produces the sweet juice described above, though its seedhead is also attractive and both make good chicken food.

We harvested the sorghum this weekend, cutting the stalks and piling them in the truck and trailer. Much of the broomcorn in particular was damaged in a strong storm over the summer, in which 60-70mph winds blew down parts of the stand. It survived, but with a serious curve in the stalks where it regrew vertically from the flattened stems. We intended the broomcorm primarily for decorative and craft purposes, so the curved stems were a bit of a problem. The worst ones we cut off above the curve (above left) while the others we harvested lower down and hung in the barn to straighten and dry (above right).

Agriculturally, sorghum was traditionally grown in Missouri for its sugar content, and was crushed and pressed to extract the juice, which was then boiled down to make a syrup that functions as a cross between molasses and maple syrup, with a unique rich, sweet flavor. This product as all but died out as imports and cultural assimiliation replaced sorghum with molasses and maple syrup. A few farms and operations still use and make sorghum the traditional way, including Sandhill Farm in northern Missouri (a place we really need to visit someday).

Modern sorghum in the US is grown mostly for use in livestock feed, although it is increasingly attracting interest for ethanol (due to the sugar content) and food products (as a replacement for wheat grain). See this page from the National Sorghum Producers for a useful overview of modern sorghum uses around the world.

Our sweet sorghum certainly fits its reputation, with sweet, juicy stalks. You can simply chew on the end and suck the juice out, like sugar cane (see above, top), or cut small chunks at a time (see above, bottom) and chew them whole, spitting out the flesh when it’s dry. It’s disturbingly like what I imagine chewing tobacco to be, but the sweet, tasty juice is worth it.

We’ve been using sorghum syrup increasingly at home. Like honey, it’s an all-purpose sweetener that can almost completely replace sugar in cooking and baking. It’s more sustainable to grow than sugar beets, more local than sugar cane, and is yet another aspect of our cultural and agricultural history that has faded in the glare of homogenized world agriculture and food systems. Though we don’t have the equipment and resources to press and boil our own sorghum syrup, we can at least enjoy the juicy stalks, the beautiful seedheads, and the tasty chicken grain.

We’re considering bringing some snack-sized sorghum stalks to market next weekend to see if people are interested. We’re also planning on offering some of the nicer seed heads and stalks for sale as fall decorations; they complement cornstalks beautifully.

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