Sorghum sweetens community life for producers and consumers

Sweet sorghum syrup from Sandhill Farm, organically grown and processed near Rutledge, Mo., is ready for seasonal shoppers just in time for the holidays. Today, it’s an unusual ingredient for most American cooks, but in the 1880s it was a common, inexpensive sweetener.

“A hundred years ago most rural communities would have sorghum processors every five or 10 miles,” said Stan Hildebrand, a member of the Sandhill Farm community. “Each farm would grow a patch of sorghum, take it to the processor and have their sweetener for the whole year.”

In fact, Sandhill’s sorghum production began just that way. “There was an old-time couple in the area near Sandhill in the ’70s who cooked the syrup,” said Hildebrand. “At first, we just grew some [sorghum] cane and processed it with the older couple. Then we started cooking our own.” The members of the Sandhill community work each fall with interns, friends and other cooperatives to process the sorghum cane into syrup.

Sandhill intern Heather Osborn of Ottawa, Canada, worked her first sorghum harvest this fall. Her internship in the simple life began high-tech with an Internet search for organic farming communities. “I didn’t even know what sorghum was when I came,” said Osborn. “The social scene was always morphing here as people came and went to help with the sorghum. I counted about 45 people working, visiting. Lots of work, but it was fun, too.”

In this intentionally egalitarian community where everything is shared, the harvest provides food and income for the members, much in the way small farms did 100 years ago. In addition to the sorghum syrup, honey and prepared mustard it sells at the Web site, Sandhill also sells seasonal items like frozen tempeh, hard-necked Sandhill garlic, horseradish and salsas at harvest fairs and at the farm.

The stylish blue, white and yellow Sandhill Farm sorghum label lists only one ingredient: organic sorghum cane juice. Dark amber in color, the syrup has a nice viscosity; it’s easier to measure than honey or molasses. Sorghum smells light and tangy, with no hint of the sulfurous odor that characterizes molasses. A taste straight from the jar is sweet and lively. One can just imagine how good it will taste in gingerbread, baked beans and barbecue sauce. Plus, it’s one of those enjoyable good-for-you things. “As a sweetener, the nutritional value is not much, but sorghum has more minerals and enzymes than honey,” said Hildebrand. “Plus it’s high in antioxidants.”

Locally, Wild Oats Natural Marketplace in Ladue carries Sandhill Farm sorghum. It’s in the baking aisle near the brown sugar, not with the honey and molasses where one might expect to find it.

Black Bear Bakery mixes sorghum in its pumpkin pies, sorghum multigrain loaf, muffins and granola. Baker bobEE Sweet said, “We use sorghum because it’s flavorful and it’s locally produced. Plus we’re a cooperative, like Sandhill. We like to support other cooperatives.”

The Buying Group of St. Louis, an organic food cooperative, is another Sandhill customer. “We buy sorghum, tempe and honey from Sandhill Farm,” said Marie Andrews. A Buying Group member for 16 years, Andrews said she likes the cooperative model of shared effort and good food. Each member works about four hours a month.

Measure for measure, the home cook can substitute sorghum for honey, corn syrup, molasses or maple syrup. Because it’s sweeter than molasses, bakers will need to reduce the white sugar in cookie and pie recipes by about a third when using sorghum. The Sandhill label recommends substituting one-half cup of sorghum for one cup of white sugar.

Hildebrand makes it clear sorghum is not molasses. “When we sell at harvest festivals, older folks sometimes ask for ‘sorghum molasses.’ Molasses is a by-product of white sugar cane, while sorghum is a whole food product.”