What is in this article?:
- How sweet it is: Syrup-making a fall ritual for Terry Norwood
- Early-era equipment
- A sellout each year
Follow your nose to a rustic one-room building, its wooden boards darkened with years of smoke from fires hot as the hinges of Hades, where Terry Norwood and his crew are cooking sorghum syrup that, when teamed with real-honest-to-goodness butter and hot homemade biscuits, constitutes what aficionados consider some of the finest breakfast eatin’ on the planet.
THE SWEET SMELL of steam from cooking sorghum syrup surrounds Terry Norwood in the syrup shack on his Mississippi farm.
He has made some concessions to modernity: The 15-foot stalks of sorghum are no longer cut by hand with machetes (much to the relief of wife Debbie, who helped him for years), but with a corn binder (they’re deheaded with a tractor-mounted sickle mower), and stalks are no longer crushed by mules tethered to a long wooden pole, plodding around in circles, but by a tractor-towed power crusher.
“I have one of the old mule-drawn mills that’s on display as a curiosity item for visitors to the farm,” Norwood says. “At Christmas, I’ll string lights on it and put it out in the front yard with other holiday lights and decorations. The kids really like to see all our old equipment, and my 1-1/2 year old grandson, Lem Tate, loves for us to let him pretend-drive these machines. Back in the day, Case, John Deere, and International all made sorghum harvesting machinery that was pulled by horses or mules.”
Over the years, he’s bought a number of old mills and related equipment, which he uses for spare parts and to provide interest for those who come to the farm.
After the sorghum stalks are cut with a sickle mower and the seedheads removed, the bundles of stalks stay in the field three to five days to let nature enhance the sugars, after which stalks are fed by hand through the crushing machine right there in the field. Juice is collected in a 300-gallon tank and transported to a cooling shed near the cooking house.
“We transfer it to stainless steel milk coolers,” Norwood says. “Water circulating through coils inside the tanks cools the juice to 38 degrees and holds it at that temperature until we get ready to cook it. We can hold 500 gallons in the coolers. While it’s in the cooling tank, most of the bits of cane pith and other impurities will settle to the bottom. If we didn’t cool it, it would ferment into some pretty potent alcohol — most of the U.S. sorghum crop goes to ethanol production, and of course, it’s used in many parts of the world to make rum.”
He grew 10-1/2 acres of sweet sorghum this year, an M81E variety developed at Mississippi State University. “We also grow 2 acres of sweet sorghum for seed for the university. Their seed is sold to growers all over the world.”