Local Farmer Preserves Sorghum History

Jul 8, 2012

At Brad Lowe’s farm, the livestock enjoy free range living together in an open field. Under an old oak tree, chickens peck for food while pigs root around and goats graze. An audience of dairy cows listens intently, while Lowe explains his love of sorghum.

“It’s a sweet product. All those guys, they’ll tell you. That’s all they had before sugar cane production,” Lowe said.

Thirty-five year old Lowe is tall and slender. He wears jeans, a surf-style t-shirt, a newsboy cap and drinks sweet tea from a big gulp cup. He definitely does not look old enough to have a teenage daughter, but he does.  He plows fields with mules, composts kitchen scraps, and tends his farm the way farmers used to.

In a back field, not obvious from the gravel road, sits a young crop of sorghum. Lowe said, “It’s quite a process.”

Small enough to look unidentifiable, in three months the stalks will be almost twelve feet tall, towering over the volunteers that will harvest the crop. “By mid October, we’ll be knocking the fodder off, which is the leaves around the stalk,” Lowe explained.

Once that’s done, the stalks will look like sugar cane. They’ll be cut down and taken to the mill for processing.

The mill looks like an old cast iron block. It was built in Louisville in 1925 and it’s about three square feet and looks like it weighs a ton.  It sits topped with an old Cyprus tree trunk looking like a see-saw from a playground. Hanging at one end is a long leather strap. That is where Kate the mule assumes her post, walking in circles to turn the gears of the mill. 

Three years ago Lowe got the mill from his late friend David West. He said, “We never got to the point of him showing me how to cook it. I had two acres of sorghum and didn’t know how to process it.”

That’s when Lowe reached out for help, calling 90 year old Lewis Johnston. Lowe said, “That’s his thing. He’s known all over his end of the community for being the man who makes molasses.”

Lowe spent three days with Mr. Johnston learning how to process sweet sorghum.

Back at the mill, powered by Kate the mule, sorghum stalks are fed through grinding gears extracting the sweet syrup which is taken to the furnace.  The furnace is only a couple of feet tall, but about twelve feet long with a chimney stack at the end. Built of bricks and local mud, there is a stainless steel tray that covers the entire length of the furnace. The tray’s slight angle allows the sorghum to travel across the fire underneath.  By the time the syrup reaches the end of the tray, it has reached a temperature of about 225 degrees causing the syrup to thicken and change colors.

“When that molasses comes out of that spout, it’s all worth while,” Lowe said.

The finished sweet sorghum syrup that is not given away or eaten is bottled and sold.

Processing sorghum is celebrated at Lowe’s farm called Hillyard Field Organics. They host an annual sorghum festival. It’s a time when volunteers come to harvest the crop, enjoy the fruits of their labor and take note of the history that Lowe and his family are trying to preserve.  And just as sorghum syrup is preserved in mason jars and glass bottles, Lowe preserves history with story telling and celebration.

And if you’d like some sorghum advice, you might be best suited to visit the Lowe’s, because Mr. Johnston said, “Well, the only thing I can tell you is you just have to make it.”