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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sorghum on Sulphur Creek

Neglect a blog for a couple of weeks, and see what happens...right-wingers take over the country. I'll try not to let this happen again. Meanwhile, let's think about something sweet.

"Did Dr. John ever get that second quart I left him?" The rangy gray-haired man, sporting a Santa Gertrudis belt buckle, leaned over the counter at the nurses' station. The husband of a patient of mine, he had just established that "Dr. Tom" was in fact related to me, and that he and his wife were enthusiastic members of the Dr. Tom fan club. (I benefit from the fringe good will!)

He was talking about sorghum, and no, Tom had not gotten the second quart, and yes, the half-empty quart on our kitchen table was from the James farm in Russellville, Kentucky.

It was a slow day at Stallworth. Here's what I learned about sorghum from this man who is obviously a master.

About half an acre of sorghum cane produced 350 gallons of juice, which boils down to about 40-50 gallons of syrup. But not easily.

After many experiments, he found the best way to grow sorghum is to start the plants in a float bed, trays of cells floating on water, a technique used by tobacco farmers. He then plants them out in precise rows using his tobacco planter, and keeps them weed-free. When harvest time comes, he walks the rows and cuts off the leaves and tops with a pocketknife. A few days later, he hand cuts the cane and piles it on the back of a truck. ("Some folks just crush it, leaves and all, but that just in't right. It'll spoil easy.") The cane must spend at least two weeks stacked, in order to maximize the development of sugar, but can spend a couple of months without harm, as long as it doesn't freeze.

Then he runs the cane through his crusher (bought second hand in Florida and so powerful "you could feed a couple of guys into it if ya wanted to"). The juice goes into a metal tray he custom-built--8 feet by 4 feet by 18 inches deep--which sits on a double row of concrete blocks with the fire built between them , and cooks down. Different impurities and chemicals rise to the surface at different times in the process, and have to be skimmed off--"made my skimmers out of pie plates with holes punched in the bottoms".

I'm not sure how long the juice takes to cook, since I was so distracted by the complexities of decanting a tray of boiling hot syrup measuring 8ftx4ftx18 inches. Not to worry. "Made one corner a little bit lower and have a spigot there", so the syrup can just be drained off into clean buckets, cooled, and poured into the stainless steel honey tank he bought for just this purpose. It, too, has a spigot, and he can fill quart jars at his leisure.

No sorghum this year, due to his wife's very serious health problems, but we hope we have those under control now, so maybe next year will be back on track at the James farm.

What a smart farmer knows: this man and his wife are encyclopedias of Kentucky agriculture. The Japanese designate masters of traditional lore as "national treasures"--I would nominate him in a skinny minute. Santa Gertrudis belt buckle and all.

In the meantime, Sunday biscuits with sorghum.

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