At least two local farmers have been working with the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center (ML-ELC) to grow cane sorghum as a demonstration of old fashioned sorghum syrup production at the Learning Center. Cane sorghum previously was produced in Indiana as a "local sugar" in the late 1800s, but over the years production of this crop has nearly disappeared. As a small group of farmers,(4 cooperating farms in year 1), we plan to work together to focus on the challenges associated with profitably producing sorghum syrup on small plots in northern Indiana. The challenges are specifically: the appropriate seed variety/varieties for this area; optimal plot sizing to balance yield and labor inputs on a small farm; feasibility of cooperative cane pressing, juice evaporation and syrup processing; and development of new regional markets for this "local sugar" product. Our farmers will work on small (1/4 - 1.0 acre) plots, tracking planting, cultivation, harvest, and processing costs, yields for various seed varieties, and marketing efforts, and will share our results with other local farmers through field days, open meetings, farm conference presentations, blogs, and electronic media releases.
This project attempts to reintroduce sweet sorghum as a profitable crop for small scale farms in northern Indiana. Our challenges include: 1) determining the optimal variety(ies) of sweet sorghum for production in northern Indiana climate; 2) developing a cooperative approach to planting, cultivating, harvesting, syrup production to increase profitability on small plots and to improve the quality of life for the farmer, as cultivation and harvest/processing can be very labor-intensive; 3) reintroducing sweet sorghum to local markets such as farmers markets, restaurants and breweries; and 4) sharing knowledge with other small farmers so that this “local sugar” product is not lost to future generations. Over two years, four small farming operations attempt to meet these challenges in order to reintroduce sweet sorghum to a new generation of producers and consumers in our region, who are mostly unfamiliar with this value-added product.
Meeting the challenges
Crop variety: To determine the best seed variety for our region, we consulted with the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association (NSSPPA) and trialed several seed varieties (Dale, Sand Mountain, 1810, 2308, and a dual sugar/popping variety) in Year 1 on plots small enough for one farm family to handle efficiently. The plots ranged in size from 1/4 to 1 acre. We tracked timing for planting, intensive cultivation, scouting, plant growth, harvest, pressing, evaporation and finishing the product and made adjustments in our plans for Year 2.
Our varieties all grew well in the region. We concluded the dual sugar/popping variety produced a substandard syrup and will not trial that variety again. We had a problem with stem lodging on the Sand Mountain variety on three of the plots, even though the plots were mostly protected and high winds were generally not a problem during the growing season. We determined that this stem lodging likely resulted from high fertility of the soil and close plant spacing, which produced heavy vertical growth of tall, thin stalks; we will plant a shorter variety in Year 2 and thin plants to 12″ spacing in an effort to increase stalk size and strength.
On three sites, the seeds were in the ground the first week of June. On the Palmer farm, wet conditions caused late planting (approximately July 1), and although the varieties used (1810 and 2308) had shorter maturity dates, harvest was delayed until mid-October and some cane was not pressed due to time and weather constraints.
Consultation with a regional grower and processor indicated problems with the Dale variety as well, and this producer recommended Sugar Drip as a variety that has been successful in northern Indiana.
Tools and equipment for planting and harvest: In Year 1, we used two different planters to help identify best seeding patterns to help reduce labor for cultivation during mid-summer, which is crucial for a profitable crop. Both pieces of equipment tended to release too many seeds per row resulting in the need to thin plants (optimal plant spacing is 5″-12″ between plants). Space between rows varied from 30″ to 36″. We employed hand-thinning of rows and mechanical cultivation between the rows, and hand cutting vs. modified corn-bailing equipment for cane harvest. The agricultural intern and farm workers from ML-ELC and Old Loon Farm assisted with harvest at the Palmer Farm plots, which were larger in size. Organic cereal rye was sown as a cover crop on the plots after harvest.
To make improvements in Year 2, we plan to adjust the planting equipment and seed plates for better in-row seed spacing, and our regional consultant suggested using tapioca (as a dummy seed) mixed with the sorghum seed to promote spacing. We plan to thin plants very early in the growth process to about 12″. Spacing between rows will depend on the cultivation equipment each farmer chooses to use, some of which is shared cooperatively, at 30″-36″. Plot size is dependent on the farmer’s preferred use of equipment, available land, and labor available at critical cultivation and harvesting periods. We found that overall in Year 1, the intense time and labor associated with harvest, pressing, evaporation and finishing would severely limited our capacity for any increase in production of the syrup in Year 2. This became another challenge for our project.
Tools and equipment for pressing, evaporation and finishing: In Year 1, as planned, we used cooperative labor and tools to process the sorghum cane into syrup. We pressed all the cane with Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center’s (ML-ELC) antique press powered by an antique tractor. We also evaporated the juice to at least 220o at ML-ELC on their wood-fired evaporation unit. We were able to store the cooled, partially processed juice in plastic 5-gallon buckets at ML-ELC’s walk-in cooler and use the ML-ELC produce facility to store and clean equipment for pressing and evaporation of the juice.
Due to the extended time frame for harvesting, we had an equally extended time frame for finishing and canning the final syrup product, which made the one-time rental of a commercial kitchen for finishing and canning unworkable. Therefore finishing and bottling of the syrup was completed by Jane and Charlie Loomis at Old Loon Farm’s kitchen facility over a period of several weeks between October 8 -31. We initially boiled the syrup product to 235o (Brix reading of ~78) outdoors over propane cookers at the farm, and then completed the final filtering and bottling on the stove top indoors. We used finishing equipment that is also used for maple syrup and/or honey production, including filters, refractometer, thermometers, and stainless steel pots.
Data collection and information-sharing: We gathered information from regional producers and attended sorghum festivals in Kentucky and Tennessee in late summer 2017. We had additional contact with a Missouri sorghum farm cooperative by phone, discussing seed varieties, pest and other problems. It seems that fungus is an emerging problem in the growing regions further south, and that problem may affect us in future years.
We shared information about our project with other local farmers through electronic media, handouts, meetings, cooperative crop scouting, and a local sorghum festival held at the ML-ELC in mid-October. This effort recruited additional farmers to work with us in Year 2 of the project. Through meetings and mentoring, we will help the new producers select seed, plant, cultivate and harvest based on our findings from Year 1 of the project.
In March 2018, we plan to share our experience and network with other farmers at the Indiana Small Farms Conference (March 1-3), as well as produce a poster presentation about our project. We plan to make a complete presentation of the project at the 2018 Small Farms Conference.
Marketing the Sweet Sorghum Syrup: Our goal is to produce a superior syrup that is standardized across the cooperating farms, and to market it regionally at farmers markets, restaurants and breweries. We commissioned a graphic artist to design a label that would promote a single product name but allow individual farmers to market themselves as well. This resulted in the Indiana Natural label that has space to identify the individual farmer’s contact information. The labels are designed for Avery weather-resistant shipping labels, and can be printed in any quantity at our local print store (such as Staples) at a much more reasonable price than ordering large quantities of pre-printed labels. Our research indicated that we were not required to include nutritional information on the label, so for this year, we employed a very simple label format.
After unsuccessfully searching for an appropriate marketing coordinator over the first 6 months of the project, we contracted with a local writer to help us produce press releases, hand outs, and on-line event announcements to work with us for our festival event. For marketing our sorghum syrup, we realized that each cooperating farmer had many local business contacts in the region, and that we could continue to contact local outlets and distribute product and price information over the fall and winter season. Thus far, we have not hired a professional marketing coordinator, but we have sold our sorghum syrup at local farm markets, and distributed product and a pricing sheet to local chefs and restaurants, food businesses and brewers, requesting they sample our product and give us feedback. This effort to expand the market will continue throughout Year 2, with hiring of a marketing coordinator remaining an option.
Major adjustments for Year 2: Our biggest challenge in Year 1 was the time and labor crunch surrounding harvest and processing of the syrup. The Merry Lea equipment proved to be great for an educational demonstration, but the ML-ELC is not appropriate for the long term or for bulk pressing and evaporation over a sustained period. We learned a great deal about timing and the limits of our production capacity based on the critical harvest and syrup processing window, and realized that cooperating farmers would soon abandon sweet sorghum production unless the process could be streamlined. Therefore we began searching for alternatives to producing the syrup “at home.”
We located a farmer in Middlebury, Indiana, who operates a finishing plant (Heritage Acres) for cane sorghum. This operation is not unlike the major producers in the southern US, or for that matter, historical production in our area where farmers took their cane to a central processing site to be made into syrup. The facility uses a steam evaporation/cooking process and bottles the finished syrup onsite. Choosing to have our cane processed at this facility would require us to harvest our cane during a specific, short window of time around the end of September, and to haul the harvested cane on trailers approximately 32 miles one way. The facility would press, evaporate and bottle our syrup at a price that would have to be covered by our wholesale and retail sales. We could still market our product under our own cooperative label.
Utilizing the finishing operation facility would solve several problems that we encountered in Year 1: 1) It would allow us to utilize the ML-ELC for use as a demonstration/educational festival site without overtaxing the staff and making major improvements to the existing facilities; 2) It would significantly decrease the labor commitment required of the individual farmers in the finishing and bottling process, allowing us to increase production and output of the syrup product, as long as we could handle the labor required for growing and harvesting; 3) it would standardize our product. These are major issues that directly affect our quality of life.
Utilizing the finishing operation facility would also affect our scheduling on the planting side: 1) we would need to standardize the seed variety(ies) so that we produced a crop that could be planted early enough to ensure harvest by late September, and one that would resist stem lodging, increasing our yield; 2) we would need to coordinate our cooperative labor to harvest, pack and transport our cane to the processing plant at the appropriate time; 3) we would need to determine the appropriate plot size, crop yield, and market price of the syrup to profitably cover the cost of processing; 4) we would need to save enough harvested cane to provide material for the educational demonstration/outreach event at Merry Lea ELC in October, as well as have syrup product for tasting and sale at the festival.
We have learned over the course of the project so far, that central processing is a common way that sorghum is and has historically been produced. Individual processing is possible and sustainable for a small amount of syrup production, but fails to support production of larger quantities. The cooperating farmers have agreed that central processing with Heritage Acres is an appropriate change for Year 2 for our project.
We have recruited at least two additional farmers interested in production of sorghum syrup for next season. We will support their inclusion in the group by: 1) information sharing, physical assistance in growing, cultivating and harvesting the crop; 2) providing seed for crop and cover crops up to $100 per acre; 3) sharing planting, cultivating and harvesting equipment; 4) providing individualized labels for their syrup product. In return, the new farmers will 1) assist with group planting, cultivation and harvest; 2) share agro information regarding their plots; 3) assist with marketing and promotion of the syrup product; 4) assist with outreach events.
Our 2-year plan was to plant small plots of sweet sorghum that could be managed by one or more farmers using shared planting, cultivating and harvesting equipment, to press the cane and evaporate the juice on antique equipment at the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center (ML-ELC) of Goshen College located at Wolf Lake, Indiana, and then to finish and bottle the syrup at a central location such as a rented commercial kitchen. We proposed that these small plots could be managed in a sustainable manner by small farmers interested in a value-added product that could be sold locally at farmers markets and used by local chefs and brewers.
To the extent possible, we planned to use equipment and tools that are often used for maple syrup and honey production, often owned by small farmers but not in use during fall harvest and processing of sorghum. Small plots also support the utility of smaller hand and mechanical gardening tools rather than large farm equipment.
We trialed several varieties of sweet sorghum seed in year one, including Dale, Sand Mountain from Seed Savers, a dual pressing/popping variety, as well as 1810 and 2308 varieties from Townsend Sorghum Mill in Kentucky. We also used some saved seed from the 2016 season, primarily Sand Mountain.
Year 1 includes planting, harvesting and syrup production, as well as research into sorghum syrup production regionally and in the southern US. We hired a student intern to help with collection of agronomic data. We are sharing information with other local farmers through a harvest festival and demonstration, electronic and print media, and networking/presentations at the Indiana Small Farms Conference in March. We plan to recruit additional farmers and/or rent additional acres on which to produce sorghum for Year 2 of the project.
By collecting agronomic information on this project and sharing our experience and results with other local farmers, we hope to increase the production of sweet sorghum syrup, a “local sugar” product, in our area, thus adding another value-added product that small local farms can produce and share with their communities.
Year 1: We have collected growth and yield data for the various plots (4 separate farms) and seed varieties. Cane harvest, pressing and juice evaporation, finishing and bottling of syrup presented us with several problems that we will attempt to solve during Year 2. Chief among these problems: planting in wet, cool weather; stem lodging of the sorghum crop; labor for cultivation and harvesting; and labor for processing syrup. Initial sharing of our information and networking with other farmers took place during our October sorghum festival at the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, Wolf Lake, Indiana, and will continue at the 2018 Small Farms Conference in Danville, Indiana in March.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Our cooperating farmers consulted with local extension agent Steve Engleking, LaGrange County, regarding nutritional labeling for our syrup product. We visited two sorghum festivals, Muddy Pond in Tennessee and Liberty County in Kentucky. In Kentucky, we consulted with Danny Townsend of Townsend Sorghum Farms regarding seed varieties, harvesting, pressing and evaporation. And we consulted by phone with a farmer who is part of a sorghum cooperative in Missouri, and who reached out to us after reading about our project on the SARE website. Locally, we visited Yurie Miller, an Amish farmer who runs a sorghum pressing and processing operation (Heritage Acres) in Middlebury, Indiana, in order to evaluate his operation, consult on seed varieties, plant and harvest dates, and compare the economics of having our crop processed and packaged by his company instead of processing on-farm.
Several publications were produced in Year 1: We produced an advertisement flyer for the festival which was also distributed electronically via mail lists and FaceBook, Festival-flyer-2017 , two handouts for our festival event, sorghum fact sheet Sorghum-Fact-sheet and sorghum syrup process sorghum-process.
We created a marketing sheet to distribute with our sample product to local restaurants, food businesses, chefs and brewers. We also used this publication as an information sheet at our farm booths at local farmers markets. Indiana-Natural-Pricing-sheet
On October 11 and 12, we held an on-farm festival at the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, which included a free, open to the public supper featuring foods made with sorghum syrup, an overview presentation of our SARE project, and a farmer-panel discussion about our SARE project on Thursday evening. On Friday we demonstrated cane pressing, evaporation and syrup finishing at the festival, welcoming visitors with free tastings of sorghum syrup, biscuits and sorghum cookies. Our outreach recruited two, possibly three additional farmers who wish to plant sorghum for year 2.
We produced pre-and post-event press releases, Sorghum-PR-1 and Festival-PR-EO-final. These were sent to local print and electronic media outlets and were distributed via FaceBook and Goshen College. These covered announcement and reporting on our October 11-12 sorghum festival, held at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. We also created the event and collected RSVPs through EventBrite.