The Lend-A-Hand Center Grow Appalachia Gardening Program participants had a great last meeting covering season extension and fall crops. We met at the Baker Family Farm and watched how sorghum was made. There was even pumpkin painting for the kids! We also talked about season extension tools like low tunnels and different types of vegetables that are good for colder weather. We have some experimental low tunnels at the community garden at Dewitt Elementary. Irma wrote a piece for the paper about sorghum on Stinking Creek.
The following article originally appeared in the Barbourville Mountain Advocate.
By: Irma Gall
“If you have been to the Farmers Market in Barbourville on Thursday evening you probably have seen the sign about Bakers Farm Sorghum. You might even have bought a quart of molasses or their honey. Their farm is located up Laurel Branch of Stinking Creek about four miles above the Dewitt School.
You can travel four miles up KY 223 to Dewitt, then another four miles up KY 718 until you see a small sign on the left that points you up Laurel Branch. Then your adventure begins. The blacktop road is considerably narrower and full of twists and turns with buildings and fences crowding on the roads making the road feel even more dangerous. You naturally slow down which makes you feel as if you are driving “clear out of the county”. But you are not; it is almost impossible to drive a car “out of the county” in most of our hollows. After you travel a short spell up the road closed in on both sides, you might wonder “is this really the right road?,” but there are electric poles marching right on and even mail boxes.
Just about the time you are ready to give up, if you are a woman you are thinking of asking someone, that is if you see someone, but if you are a man you might think of turning around if you could find a place to turn but reason tells you that there were no places to turn to go anywhere else so this must be the right road. O.K., let’s go a bit farther.
About that time the blacktop ends and the country dirt road begins. Even the mail boxes seem to end but the electric poles continue. If you have passengers in the car they begin to question you but just then there are signs of mowed roadsides (lawn mower mowed) which soon open up into a space with a nicely kept cemetery. A sigh of relief almost escapes you but it gets caught half way out when you notice a gate—an open gate.
Then a house comes in view but even that is not reassuring because is has a deserted look. A moment later the hollow opens up into a farm with gardens, patches of sorghum cane and corn and buildings including houses, a barn and the sorghum mill. There is even a parking space. You have finally found the Baker farm and at this season you know it is the sorghum place.
Usually at this time the sorghum harvest is in full swing. Since most of the harvest involves mostly handwork there will be people around with welcoming smiles. Depending on what part of the harvest is being done, you can see and learn a great deal about the work. But you really won’t get the first hand knowledge unless you get “hands on” of one of the steps. They do welcome help in most of the steps.
The sorghum plant resembles a corn stalk with a different kind of tassel. It can grow considerably taller than corn, up to sixteen feet. The handwork begins with cutting the stalk down with a machete, detasseling and stripping the corn-like leaves before loading the stalks onto a trailer or truck. Not only is the machete a dangerous instrument but the cut stubble is like a sharp knife that can inflict a serious injury if you stumble. Since both ends of the stiff stalk have been sliced into sharp objects, they have to be handled with care in the loading process as they are transported to the mill.
Then each stalk is picked up individually and poked into the rollers. The Bakers use electric motors to power the mill instead of the old way with a mule or horse pulling a long pole around and around. The rollers catch the stalk and pull it into the press which squeezes the juice out to be caught in a pan that funnels the juice into a pipe into a large barrel. The sediments settle out before the juice goes into the cooking pan. This cooking pan is seven feet long and thirty-four inches wide and is located over a wood-fed fire. It holds about 140 gallons of watery juice which is cooked down slowly, boiled and steamed away until it makes about 15 gallons or 60 quarts of molasses. It takes about nine hours of constant attention to keep the fire just right with constant stirring. Then comes the time to skim it off and bottle the hot sticky liquid into the quart jars.
Incidentally, what is the difference between the words sorghum and molasses? Sorghum is the actual plant that grows. Molasses is the processed juice from any type of sugar plant. Since this molasses comes from the sorghum plant it is rightfully called sorghum molasses.
You might be interested to know that the trip back down Laurel Branch doesn’t seem long at all.”
We are so excited to continue to learn from the Bakers and for all the great farmers and gardeners doing amazing things in Knox County.