Growing and Harvesting Sorghum: Raising Cane and Gettin’ Juiced

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Sorghum is one of the topics we cover when we speak at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR. We also did a “juicing” demonstration.

We are a small farm and we stick mainly with the traditional crops that have always been grown here in the mountains (Western North Carolina). Although, we try to find more economical ways of growing, processing and/or marketing those crops — which tends to be non-traditional ways.

I’m a genealogy nut, so I love to find out what my ancestors were growing and how. I want to connect land and family. I found an 1880 Agricultural Census with my great great grandfather listed. In that time Molasses, Maple Syrup, hops, wine, cheese and milk were a few listed. I was so excited! If they could produce those then we could surely do it now!

Is it Cane or Sorghum?

We tried the sorghum cane because we knew our land did well with corn and since they require much of the same nutrients we went with this. We needed another “sweet” option here on the farm too. We’ve always called it “cane.” Sorghum is known by many names: sweet sorghum, sorghum cane and all are correct.

Sorghum is actually a type of grass, not unlike corn. Sorghum actually looks like a small variety of corn when growing. There are larger varieties of cane but, most of those are grown in South America and other hotter climates. This sugar cane doesn’t produce as dark a syrup as does Sorghum cane.

Getting Started: Where to Find Sorghum Seed

We’ve been growing cane now for over 5 years. So, for us, we save seed each year. We chose Rox Orange which is a versatile cane. When getting started I recommend buying seed from a reputable dealer. There are many dealers out there and many choices when deciding which seed to buy. A company we have used is Sustainable Seed Company.

If you are looking for untreated seed make sure that is listed because too often you’ll receive seed that has been treated. When you buy “organic” this will be untreated seed. As I said earlier, there are many varieties of sorghum. There are many purposes for sorghum. You can use the sorghum for juice, making molasses, using seed heads for making gluten-free flour, seed heads for animal/bird feed, and the bagasse (scraps from juicing) for livestock feed.

When to Plant

We usually plant our seed when we plant our corn. We are in Zone 7 and usually don’t have a hard frost after May 10th. When the ground becomes warm, at least 60 degrees, we start planting our seed. We don’t use a seed sower, we just sow by hand. The seeds are very small so the seeds are sowed thickly.

If you have a corn planter, there are attachments that would accommodate this size seed. The concerns for this crop is too much rainfall that can loosen the ground and/or wind that can cause “lodging”. Falling over of the crops. It is very hard to “weed” this crop since it is planted so densely. Make sure weeds are removed from between the rows.

When and How to Harvest Sorghum

Days to maturity varies between varieties. At least 80 days for silage. Left to mature longer makes the juice sweeter. We like to start cutting cane by the 2nd week in September and you want to cut it before the first hard frost in your area. You simply cut the stalks as close to the ground as possible and gather. I use my Daddy’s old tobacco knife to cut cane.

There is the argument as to strip the leaves first or not. Some will strip the leaves and top the seed heads and leave a few days before gathering. There is some research that says this will increase sugar content and yields while other research says it makes no difference in the outcome. So, we do not strip the leaves and seed heads first.

You want to be ready to process all the cane you gather in the same day. The stalks lose moisture/juice from evaporation after cutting. We only process a limited amount at a time.

Photo of Alan “hand” harvesting.

Now, with the first cutting ready and the seed heads bundled, it’s time for processing. Click here to learn how to juice sorghum and market your sorghum-based products.

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting “workshop stays” on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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