Last week, LaRue County High School sophomore Casey McMillen spent his fall break harvesting sorghum.
His family’s rediscovery of the nearly-lost art of sorghum-making tied in with an FFA project for McMillen, who is working on his State FFA degree. To obtain his State FFA degree he must earn or invest $1,500 or work 1,000 hours. He must also be an FFA member for three consecutive years and complete state, national and regional requirements.
After experimenting with a few other activities, McMillen decided sorghum fit the bill.
McMillen’s step-father owns Eskridge Farms in Buffalo, which is known for homemade jam and fresh honey. Many of their customers began requesting homemade old-fashioned sorghum. It took two full years to be able to meet these requests as locating a cane mill was no easy feat. Last spring their efforts paid off when they located a mill, only nine miles from their home.
The 1899 Trojan mill was meant to run on horsepower, but was converted to power by tractor. When the family purchased the mill it came with the wood pieces to convert it back into being powered by horse, along with a compartmentalized trough to cook the sorghum in.
“Most people don’t grow it because they can’t hardly find a mill around,” said Doyle Eskridge. “… it was being in the right place at the right time that I found this one.”
In the spring, McMillen planted the crop and weeded the field. Last week, the cane was cut and stripped of its leaves and tops. After cutting, there was a 24-hour window to complete the milling process or the plant would ruin. The sorghum cane proved tough during this year’s dry season. It can also withstand wind and tough soil conditions which make it ideal to grow.
Several people assisted with the milling process which involves the cane being fed through the cane mill. Rollers crushed it to extract the plant juice. The juice was caught in a bucket and filtered.
Before the cooking process begins, a fire is lit under the trough. The fire pit is slanted so the heat is hotter at the beginning of the process and cooler towards the end. The trough has several compartments that the sorghum travels through during various stages of the cooking process. In the first few slots it is the hottest so it brings the impurities to the surface to be filtered. When it moves on to the second stage, it is pushed back and forth, so that it stays in constant motion. This process continues to remove impurities while thickening the product. The last few stages focuses on thickening the product to the point of completion. At the end of the process, the finished sorghum pours out of a valve, into a bucket and is ready to be canned. From start to finish the heating and canning process takes about four hours.
McMillen said the project is “Fun really … hard, but fun.”
The family has made plans to plant more sorghum cane next year and build a new roof that covers the cane mill.
“It’s a family thing,” said Eskridge, “We really enjoy it.”
McMillen has a long way to go to reach his FFA State degree, but until then, he has a pretty “sweet” job that helps him meet his requirements.
For more information about Eskridge Farms, call 325-4366.