Harvesting sorghum at Sandhill Farm in northeast Missouri has become the social event of the farm’s year. Visitors come from all over the country to participate in the milling and cooking of sorghum.
On steamy days, mills used to shudder and groan as they pressed the sap out of sorghum stalks. A haze of insects would hover over the sap vat, occasionally falling into it to drown in bliss. Yes, your grandma’s molasses likely was part insect. Yellow jackets were especially fond of the sucrose sap and often committed insect suicide, doing a one-and-a-half gainer into the burbling sap. But there are few kitchens left where sorghum molasses resides, fewer still where the country sweetener is home processed.
Technically, sorghum is not molasses, which is made from sugar cane or sugar beets, but try convincing the farmer who has been making “sorghum molasses” just like his daddy and grandfather did. The correct name is “sorghum syrup.” Sweet sorghum doesn’t readily crystallize into sugar. Instead, the sap from the stalks becomes viscous syrup—sorghum molasses. Making molasses has many similarities to making maple syrup. First, you start with a thin sap, and you boil that until it reaches syrup consistency (it’s quicker with sorghum than with maple sap). Traditionally, you’d pour sorghum syrup over fresh, hot corn bread or biscuits. Another country dish made from sorghum sap, especially during World War II when sugar was rationed, is moonshine.
Today, few farmers mill and bottle their own sorghum molasses, but one farm in northeast Missouri thrives on it as a cash crop. Sandhill Farm, a 137-acre communal organic farm, has been raising sweet sorghum for syrup almost from the farm’s beginning in 1974. The farm produces between 500 and 800 gallons a year, depending on demand, and sells through many stores, including several large Missouri chains, as well as in most neighboring states. Sandhill is one of three of Missouri’s leading producers of sorghum syrup. Two other producers in southwest Missouri—one Amish and one Mennonite—have substantially larger annual output.
“Back in 1974, we saw what we thought was smoke from a neighbor’s place,” says
Stan Hildebrand, who oversees the sorghum operation. “We stopped to help, thinking there might be a fire, but it turned out to be steam from an old couple cooking sorghum. That started us thinking, and we raised some sorghum the next year and milled it at their place. Then, the old fellow suffered a stroke, and they asked if we’d like to take over the mill and the operation. It grew from there.”
The farm’s website is a treasure trove of information about the plant and syrup-making process—not to mention a source of the finished product. The harvesting and processing in September has become a social event (as traditional sorghum millings were) with friends, neighbors, and curious visitors gathering to help.