Lake Country farmers continue to strive for new crop markets. To that end, in late 2016, three farms and the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center cooperated on a proposal submitted to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education division of the USDA. The proposal scope: “Investigate the possibilities of cooperative sorghum syrup production and marketing for strengthening small farm sustainability in northern Indiana.”
In 2017, they were awarded a grant for a two-year study. The three farms include: Old Loom Farm, Larry Palmer Farms and Wise Farms. The funding covers seeds, processing, observing operations, meetings, education, marketing, cover crops and reporting.
During the first year, the farmers experimented with 1.3 acres of sorghum, then processed it with the old press used by Merry Lea for educational purposes. Results were less than stellar. Chuck and Jane Loomis from Old Loon Farm finished processing using propane cookers. It required weeks of painstaking work to produce a small batch. Jane observed: “The initial batch was somewhat uneven and production was low!”
THE BIG CHANGE
One of the farmers knew of a USDA-approved processing operation in Middlebury that was worthy of investigating. Heritage Acres can press, steam cook and bottle on site. So, they purchased a sample of Heritage's sorghum syrup at E &S Sales in Shipshewana and found the solution.
Indeed, Yuri Miller of Heritage Acres jumped on board, and this year, he processed 5 acres of his own sorghum and all the sorghum brought by the cooperative farms. Yuri can produce 75 gallons of syrup a day, and there is still excess capacity.
Yuri said, “We can press up to 100 gallons in 40 minutes now.”
This cooperation seems to be working. To allow Yuri to better manage production, the farms stagger their planting and harvest dates, then deliver for processing. Besides delivering the cane, farmers assist in unloading and chopping. Two days later, they return for the bottled product. This season, Yuri processed 97 gallons for the cooperative farms from less than an acre.
With new product on the shelves, the larger question now is marketing the the sorghum syrup. Health wise, sorghum syrup is far better for you than refined sugar and is gluten-free. Sorghum also provides by-products. Seeds can be planted, cooked like rice or used for chicken feed. Left-over fodder is used for animal feed.
On Oct. 30, Jane Loomis and Jon Zirkle, manager at Merry Lea, organized a lunch and discussion at Anna’s Bread adjacent to the Goshen Farmer’s Market. Invited were farmers, chefs, brewers, distillers, shop owners and farm market managers — all potential markets for sorghum syrup. I was fortunate to be invited, as well.
Anna’s Bread provided a stunning lunch. She prepared a delicious vegetable wild rice soup. The stock was deep, rich and had a cinnamon note. Loaded with veggies from the adjacent market, it was a perfect start. Then came the kicker — a Rueben sandwich with Anna’s rye bread, shaved corned beef, locally fermented sauerkraut and a house-made dressing that had a kick. For the swirled rye bread, Anna soaked the rye berries in buttermilk overnight, then used honey in the lighter bread and sorghum in the dark swirl. The dressing included marinated yellow peppers that created the bite. It’s the best Rueben I’ve had.
For dessert, Jane and LizAnn Miller provided sorghum cookies. Both were soft, moist and full of flavor. Anna also offered orange-sorghum cookies and a sorghum cake.
After lunch and introductions, Yuri updated everyone on this year’s production from Heritage Acres, stating that sorghum is “a humiliating crop to grow.”
Others attending included: Pam DeCamp, DeCamp Gardens near Albion (farm store sells Old Loon Farm sorghum syrup); Pam Weishaupt, (establishing a seed library at the Goshen Farmers Market); Jon Shrock, heritage seed farmer from Bristol; Steve Schenk, small farmer; Tom and Margaret Wise, Wise Farms near Columbia City; Casey Filler, Filler Family Farms (cooperating in the grant this year) from Churubusco and another late-arriving farmer.
After Yuri’s talk, a marketing discussion commenced. Comments included: “People are trending toward a more natural way of eating,” (sorghum is a natural sweetener) and “sorghum syrup, honey and maple syrup are all local products” that can be marketed together.
Sorghum shows a lot of promise, I’ve left bottles at a couple of restaurants, and hopefully, creative chefs will start to use this highly nutritional syrup in more dishes, but it’s too often overlooked. Looking back at the four cookbooks I’ve written, there is only one recipe incorporating sorghum syrup.
Loren Shaum is an automation engineering consultant, retired pilot, author, home gardener and sometimes chef. He and Gayle reside in Syracuse. He can be contacted at email@example.com, and his books can be found at Better World Books and at stores throughout Lake Country.