Increasing the Sustainability of Our Farm by Learning how to Best Produce Sorghum Molasses

Project Overview

FNC12-886
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $7,224.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Ron Rushly
Little Dixie Family Farm

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: sorghum (milo)
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, goats

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage, parasite control, feed formulation, feed rations, grazing management, manure management, mineral supplements, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, watering systems
  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, marketing management, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: grass waterways, hedgerows
  • Pest Management: competition, physical control, mulching - plastic, traps
  • Production Systems: holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: earthworms, green manures, soil analysis, composting, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, sustainability measures

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND

    We have a hundred and twelve acres which consists of farmland, grazing land, woodlands, our farmhouse, farm, and outbuildings. We grew various crops in 2013 which included sorghum cane, rye, oats, barley, wheat, field corn, sweet corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and one acre of strawberries. We have 40 acres of grazing land for our livestock.

     

    We have small herd of dairy goats which produce enough milk for our family of twelve. We hope to increase our herd so we can offer goat milk for sale.

     

    At this time we have separate grazing land for our five horse, three heifers, and thirteen goats. We are looking at installing rotational paddocks for the goats and cattle to help control parasites and increase available grazing land and sustainability.

     

    Our farm is a family operation. Ron and his wife, Rachel, supervise the farm. We have nineteen children of which ten of them are still at home. Ron, Noah, and Phillip run the farm machinery and equipment. They do the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of the crops with machinery. They also grind feed for the livestock. Phillip also cares for the heifers and pigs. Sarah, Catherine, Ruby, Robin, and Hiram help Rachel care for the goats. Also, Catherine and Ruby care for the four flocks of chickens. The older children share in caring for the horses. Everyone helps with the sweet corn, sorghum, and strawberries. Our family loves our farm!

     

    We really began sustainable farming when we put in fifteen hundred strawberry plants in 2010. We decided to try Honey-eye strawberries which are a June-bearing berry, and in 2011 we put in several hundred Seascape strawberries which are ever-bearing throughout the summer and fall. Overall, we planted one acre of strawberry plants! They are an annual crop which is an added source of income for our family. We enjoy having them on our farm!

     

    We have a small goat dairy herd which we also started in 2010. We needed an alternative to cow’s milk for our premature son so we decided to raise dairy goats in order to have our own goat milk. Now we have three fresh does with three more does to freshen in the future.

     

    In 2011 we began growing open-pollinated field corn (Bloody butcher variety) and an open-pollinated sweet corn (Double- standard variety). We are grinding the field corn for livestock feed, and we put up and freeze the sweetcorn for our family.

     

    Of course, the sorghum cane is another aspect of sustainable farming for our family. Sorghum has become another source of income for our family. We have replaced refined sugar with sorghum for most of our family’s dietary needs.

     

    GOALS

    Our project goals were to grow another cash crop on our farm. We decided to grow sorghum cane, and we wanted to determine the optimum planting time, plant population, and harvest time for growing sorghum in Midwestern Missouri.

     

    The best method we discovered was to have several plantings from mid-May through mid-June. This helps spread the harvest from late Sept. through Oct. Since Sept. has many warm days, typically, the cane juice can easily sour before it cooks completely. The other side is an early frost in late Oct. can be detrimental to the sorghum cane harvest.

     

    Plant spacing is best about every six inches in forty inch rows. This can be done by blocking off cells in the planter plates. Also, sorghum needs to be planted from the outside in. The sorghum patch should be planted so the outside rows are the earliest ones planted. As the sorghum matures, the outside rows should be ready to harvest first.

     

    In 2012 we planted two varieties of sorghum cane: Dale and Sugar Drip. In 2013 we planted both of those varieties again plus another variety called Rox Orange sorghum. We actually had ordered Mennonite variety, but we were sent Rox Orange seed.

     

    When Ron was preparing the soil for planting, he worked the ground several times to get rid of the weeds. His best tool for keeping weeds out was a spike-toothed harrow which he used when the sorghum first began to grow. Ron cultivated two different times when the sorghum cane was still tender, and it quickly outgrew any weeds.

     

    Sorghum doesn’t require irrigation and it actually does better in dry weather. Sorghum cane is a very dry weather tolerant crop, and it has a good root system that goes down to draw the moisture from the soil.

     

    Nearing harvest time, we underwent an 80-mile-per-hour windstorm that laid all of the sorghum cane over. This made it nearly impossible to mechanically harvest the cane. We did cut almost an acre with the sickle mower. We pressed enough cane to cook enough juice to jar 95 gallons of sorghum!

     

    We jarred our sorghum in pints and some quarts for easier handling and marketing. We also purchased plastic squeeze-bottle angels with lids and seals for easier table use. Most people prefer sorghum in pint containers. There are a variety of containers available. We use half-gallon jars for our personal use. Our family of twelve uses an average of a gallon of sorghum per week. We have replaced refined sugar with sorghum for our sweeter.

     

    We ran into a major obstacle in our sorghum production this fall. As we were preparing to harvest our sorghum, the owner of “our” sorghum press called and said he needed to come and get his press as the one he was using as a demonstration in Branson, MO had broken down! Our friend said he had a tractor-driven press that we could borrow so Ron and the boys went to get it. Most of us really wanted to use a horse- drawn press, so Ron made a couple of phone calls and soon had another horse-drawn press located. They went and picked up this press, also.

     

    We are in the process of buying the horse-drawn press as we must have one available at harvest time every year. The grant money will provide the necessarily finances to purchase this sorghum press for our family.

     

    Since Ron had brought the tractor-driven press over, he decided to use it for a day or so to try it out and see how we liked it. He had to do quite a bit of work on the press to get it running before we could use it. The tractor driven press was very loud, and the large belt required more carefulness to operate. It rally diminished the time to turn the cane into juice! However, more intense labor was required to remove the pummies out of the way before we could continue pressing. Although it is more time consuming, we like the horse-drawn press better. It’s a matter of personal preference and availability of which kind of press would be a better fit for your farm.

     

    Last year we cooked the juice down to sorghum and let it cool in stock posts before we jarred it. This year we boiled jars and lids, and then we jarred hot sorghum. This went much faster, and overall, we were finished with the whole process sooner!

    We pre-ordered labels which we had our daughter, Sarah, design. Now we can place an order for more labels, and in a few days, there’re ready! We usually label jars as we prepare to take them to market.

     

    PEOPLE

    Farmers who helped with this project include Colby Schrock who provided us with the first hours-drawn press and also the tractor-driven press, and Bob Vanes who is selling us the second horse-drawn press we used. Our utmost gratitude goes to Jeff Yearington who was our extension-agent with the Lincoln University and Missouri University Extension office in Harrisonville when we first started the this project. Jeff Yearington supplied us with invaluable encouragement and information about the SARE grant.

     

    RESULT

    We successfully raised all three types of sorghum cane we planted. Ron had decided he wanted to raise the Rox Orange sorghum for seed. That was accomplished. Our family just wanted a small amount of Dale sorghum because we prefer the Sugardrip for our personal use. We were able to grow both in the amounts desired. The Sugardrip made around $4,000 to the acre.

               

    The biggest impact of growing sorghum cane is we are providing our own sweetener for our food. This project helped increase our desire for natural foods and growing more crops we can use.

               

    Due to the high winds that blew the cane over we were unable to harvest all of the cane. We did cut a lot of it anyway and what was left in the fields was cleaned up by the wild geese and wild turkeys over the winter.

     

    We made the equivalent of 95 gallons of sorghum which we jarred in pints, quarts, angel bottles, and half-gallon jars. We can easily market sorghum all year as it keeps indefinitely. We’ve never had any that didn’t keep before it was needed.

     

    We accomplished our goal of adding a value-added crop to our farm by raising sorghum cane. Not only did it to provide added income throughout the year; it also supplied our family with a valuable source of natural sweetener for our food.

     

    We would encourage others to not be afraid to try something different. Growing sorghum has been the impetus for an almost total change in our eating.

               

    The grant was the source of our commitment to growing sorghum. That led to increased interest in natural foods.

               

    Sorghum is a farm product we can sell 365 days a year whereas many other farm products are only available for a short time span. In today’s society with rampant Type II diabetes, sorghum is a wonderful alternative to sugar. We believe the paradigm shift in attitudes about foods will increase the demands for natural grains and sweeteners.

     

    DISCUSSION

    We want to be on the cutting-edge of that shift in thinking.

               

    The grant helped us have the finances to branch out in our farming operation. We would not have even tried raising sorghum as an annual crop if it weren’t for the SARE grant! Now we have the necessary equipment to have sorghum as a sustainable crop on our farm.

               

    Some disadvantages for other farmers would include having the labor force to implement to the whole process of sorghum making. There is more labor required at harvest time. The process takes an intense effort to get the cane cut, stripped, pressed, cooled, and jarred! Harvest lasts for several weeks throughout the month of October. Not much else gets attention during that time!

    Having the necessary equipment and obtaining the knowledge are other factors to consider. Ron went to auctions to find the equipment he needed. He also made many inquiries to people in the community to learn about the process of sorghum making. There aren’t very many knowledgeable farmers left who were around sorghum making in years gone by!

     

    OUTREACH

    We used several methods for telling others about our sorghum project. We put up a large banner by the road on our farm with the name of our grant project. We used word of mouth to tell others about our sorghum, and we sold it at local farmer’s markets during the summer and fall seasons.

               

    We invited friends and family to come and observe the process of sorghum making at harvest time. Several of our friends stopped in as we were pressing and cooking the sorghum cane juice. Nathan and Kathy Schrock along with their sons observed the sorghum process. Also, one day our grand-daughter, Amanda Rushly, came over to join the harvest fun!

               

    We had several unexpected events that interrupted our efforts to put together any fall field trips during harvest and sorghum making time. We had a major conflict with the Mudrun events on our farm which superseded the information processes necessary for any field trips. We also were in the midst of strawberry harvest, and the events which developed consumed our time and focus. In retrospect we should have hired someone to put together the information and complete the processes for field trips. We still hope to establish field trips in the future at harvest time.

     

    This was completely unexpected. If we could have foreseen these dilemmas, we would have changed our plans to accommodate the differences. Another person outside our family unit who would have not been involved in the difficulties we experienced as a family would have been able to complete the necessary processes for field trips.

     

    As we have discussed our sorghum in various places we have visited, there has been a lot of interest expressed in observing the harvest process. We feel there will be a good turn-out for future field-trips!

               

    Our family has enjoyed raising sorghum these past two years! We are excited about the possibilities this sorghum crop has opened for our family! We are looking forward to growing more sustainable crops on our farm in the years to come!

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.