The Dirt: Sweet deal

Sorghum syrup once flowed like creek water in the Southern Appalachians, and there are signs that this ultimate “slow food” may be flowing again. With help from the state, several local farmers have revved up production of the rich, old-fashioned syrup (sometimes called sorghum molasses).

An old-fashioned juicer: This well-worn, horse-powered mill comes with directions for crushing sweet-sorghum canes. Photo By Margaret V. Williams

“Sorghum growing was handed down from Joseph’s family and from mine—from our grandfathers and from theirs before that,” says Catt Redcloud. She and husband Joseph have made and sold herbal salves for years, relying on old family recipes and growing herbs and flowers on their Qualla Boundary farm near Cherokee. A grant from the Western North Carolina Agricultural Options Program is enabling them to expand their syrup operation; they also plan to open their farm to agritourism.

“We work almost exclusively with native plants,” says Catt. “And we show people that sometimes using the old ways is at least as good, if not a better, way of doing things.” When making sorghum syrup, for instance, the Redclouds use a horse, harnessed to a renovated mill that’s been in Joseph’s family for many generations.

In Madison County, Cathy and Andy Bennett take a similar approach. Although they’ve been turning sweet sorghum into syrup for 10 years, their AgOptions grant lets them take it a step further, the couple says. “There are a lot of people around here whose family history includes growing sorghum and making molasses from it,” says Cathy Bennett. “We really appreciate and enjoy the ties to the land that it brings—and being part of that community.” The couple is putting the final touches on a commercial kitchen that will increase their output; they’ll also make the facility available to other sorghum-syrup producers.

It’s a slow process, traditionally done with shared equipment and labor. The Bennetts planted their sorghum in mid-May. This fall, their neighbors helped them strip the leaves from the 10- to 12-foot-tall sorghum plants, cut them down and chop off the seed heads. The gathered canes were hand-fed, a few at a time, into a horse-powered mill that crushes the canes, extracting a yellow-green juice that smells a bit like fresh-cut grass.

It takes about four hours to cook down the juice, yielding “a gallon of syrup for every 10 gallons of juice,” Weaverville resident Worth Emory reports. For more than three decades, he’s been making sorghum syrup with his brother Eric and appearing at the Mountain State Fair each year to demonstrate the process.

Having learned from mountain natives like the Emorys, Bennett is proud to rely on old-timer methods for judging the end product: “It’s said to be ‘tater-hilling’ when it gets hot foam bubbles the size of potatoes,” she explains. “You see smaller ‘sheep’s-eye’ or ‘frog’s-eye’ bubbles right before the molasses is ready to come off the stove.”

It’s darker than honey but not as bitter as its cousin, blackstrap molasses (a byproduct of making crystallized cane sugar). Sorghum syrup, says Bennett, “tastes something like caramel.” Traditionalists use it as a baking sweetener or pour it straight from the jar onto hot biscuits. “We put it on anything you’d use honey on,” she explains. “I make caramel corn with it, and we really like it on vanilla ice cream.”

Taste and see

Pure, local sorghum molasses is sold at the WNC Farmers Market (570 Brevard Road, 253-1691), at the Forge Mountain Company Store in Flat Rock (1215 Greenville Highway, (800) 823-6743), during the French Broad Food Co-Op’s holiday sale (90 Biltmore Ave., 255-7650) and at various specialty stores around the area. The Bennetts can be reached via e-mail (, the Redclouds via Sacred Circle Farm and Nursery’s Web site (

Sorghum syrup is also rich in iron, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, according to Carla Pawling, who sells the product at her Forge Mountain Company Store in Flat Rock.

Madison County extension agent David Kendall hopes the Bennetts’ community kitchen will help reinvigorate this old custom. Though other varieties of the plant are still grown widely as cattle feed in the Plains states, sweet sorghum remains mostly a Southern thing, particularly in the Appalachians: Unlike the subtropical sugar cane, sweet sorghum is drought-tolerant and better adapted to moderate climates; once a valuable cash crop in the region, a mere acre of sweet sorghum can produce about 200 gallons of syrup.

But these days, some less-sweet sorghum varieties are attracting a new type of interest: A four-day “International Conference on Sorghum for Biofuel” was held in Houston in August. And a recent piece on reported that “ethanol made from the [sorghum] stalk’s juice has four times the energy yield of … corn-based ethanol.”

What’s the WNC Agricultural Options Program?

The aim of AgOptions “is to ensure that farming businesses in the mountains are economically sustainable,” Coordinator Megan Riley explains.

It’s funded by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Grants are awarded through an alliance with HandMade in America, an Asheville-based nonprofit. Both new and traditional ventures are supported, says Riley, noting that the molasses projects blend both.

For more info, visit

But back to taste: Locavores with a palate for tradition can support the syrup’s boutique-food status. “I can see sorghum molasses becoming popular in specialty-food markets [and] with chefs who want to use local products,” says Kendall.

Worth Emory will leave that kind of marketing to the younger generation. “We sell it right here from our farm,” he notes. “We’ve been doing it so long, we don’t have to advertise.”

Asheville resident Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.

Click the image above to view a slideshow by Margaret Williams.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “The Dirt: Sweet deal

  1. Brian J. Donovan

    Louisiana Enacts the Most Comprehensive Advanced Biofuel Legislation in the Nation

    Advanced Biofuel Industry Development Initiative Benefits Consumers, Farmers and Gas Station Owners with Localized “Field-to-Pump” Strategy

    Tampa, FL (October 25, 2008) – Governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law the Advanced Biofuel Industry Development Initiative, the most comprehensive and far-reaching state legislation in the nation enacted to develop a statewide advanced biofuel industry. Louisiana is the first state to enact alternative transportation fuel legislation that includes a variable blending pump pilot program and a hydrous ethanol pilot program.

    Field-to-Pump Strategy
    The legislature found that the proper development of an advanced biofuel industry in Louisiana requires implementation of the following comprehensive “field-to-pump” strategy developed by Renergie, Inc.:

    (1) Feedstock Other Than Corn
    (a) derived solely from Louisiana harvested crops;
    (b) capable of an annual yield of at least 600 gallons of ethanol per acre;
    (c) requiring no more than one-half of the water required to grow corn;
    (d) tolerant to high temperature and waterlogging;
    (e) resistant to drought and saline-alkaline soils;
    (f) capable of being grown in marginal soils, ranging from heavy clay to light sand;
    (g) requiring no more than one-third of the nitrogen required to grow corn, thereby reducing the risk of contamination of the waters of the state; and
    (h) requiring no more than one-half of the energy necessary to convert corn into ethanol.

    (2) Decentralized Network of Small Advanced Biofuel Manufacturing Facilities
    Smaller is better. The distributed nature of a small advanced biofuel manufacturing facility network reduces feedstock supply risk, does not burden local water supplies and provides for broader based economic development. Each advanced biofuel manufacturing facility operating in Louisiana will produce no less than 5 million gallons of advanced biofuel per year and no more than 15 million gallons of advanced biofuel per year.

    (3) Market Expansion
    Advanced biofuel supply and demand shall be expanded beyond the 10% blend market by blending fuel-grade anhydrous ethanol with gasoline at the gas station pump. Variable blending pumps, directly installed and operated at local gas stations by a qualified small advanced biofuel manufacturing facility, shall offer the consumer a less expensive substitute for unleaded gasoline in the form of E10, E20, E30 and E85.

    Pilot Programs
    (1) Advanced Biofuel Variable Blending Pumps – The blending of fuels with advanced biofuel percentages between 10 percent and 85 percent will be permitted on a trial basis until January 1, 2012. During this period the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Division of Weights & Measures will monitor the equipment used to dispense the ethanol blends to ascertain that the equipment is suitable and capable of producing an accurate measurement.

    (2) Hydrous Ethanol – The use of hydrous ethanol blends of E10, E20, E30 and E85 in motor vehicles specifically selected for test purposes will be permitted on a trial basis until January 1, 2012. During this period the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Division of Weights & Measures will monitor the performance of the motor vehicles. The hydrous blends will be tested for blend optimization with respect to fuel consumption and engine emissions. Preliminary tests conducted in Europe have proven that the use of hydrous ethanol, which eliminates the need for the hydrous-to-anhydrous dehydration processing step, results in an energy savings of between ten percent and forty-five percent during processing, a four percent product volume increase, higher mileage per gallon, a cleaner engine interior, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Act No. 382, entitled “The Advanced Biofuel Industry Development Initiative,” was co-authored by 27 members of the Legislature. The original bill was drafted by Renergie, Inc. Representative Jonathan W. Perry (R – District 47), with the support of Senator Nick Gautreaux (D – District 26), was the primary author of the bill. Reflecting on the signing of Act No. 382 into law, Brian J. Donovan, CEO of Renergie, Inc. said, “I am pleased that the legislature and governor of the great State of Louisiana have chosen to lead the nation in moving ethanol beyond being just a blending component in gasoline to a fuel that is more economical, cleaner, renewable, and more efficient than unleaded gasoline. The two pilot programs, providing for an advanced biofuel variable blending pump trial and a hydrous ethanol trial, established by the State of Louisiana should be adopted by each and every state in our country.”

    State Agencies Must Purchase or Lease Vehicles That Use Alternative Fuels
    Louisiana’s Advanced Biofuel Industry Development Initiative further states, “The commissioner of administration shall not purchase or lease any motor vehicle for use by any state agency unless that vehicle is capable of and equipped for using an alternative fuel that results in lower emissions of oxides of nitrogen, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, or particulates or any combination thereof that meet or exceed federal Clean Air Act standards.”

    Advanced Biofuel Price Preference for State Agencies
    Louisiana’s Advanced Biofuel Industry Development Initiative provides that a governmental body, state educational institution, or instrumentality of the state that performs essential governmental functions on a statewide or local basis is entitled to purchase E20, E30 or E85 advanced biofuel at a price equal to fifteen percent (15%) less per gallon than the price of unleaded gasoline for use in any motor vehicle.

    Economic Benefits
    The development of an advanced biofuel industry will help rebuild the local and regional economies devastated as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita by providing:
    (1) increased value to the feedstock crops which will benefit local farmers and provide more revenue to the local community;
    (2) increased investments in plants and equipment which will stimulate the local economy by providing construction jobs initially and the chance for full-time employment after the plant is completed;
    (3) secondary employment as associated industries develop due to plant co-products becoming available at a competitive price; and
    (4) increased local and state revenues collected from plant operations will stimulate local and state tax revenues and provide funds for improvements to the community and to the region.

    “Representative Perry and Senator Gautreaux have worked tirelessly to craft comprehensive advanced biofuel legislation which will maximize rural development, benefit consumers, farmers and gas station owners while also protecting the environment and reducing the burden on local water supplies,” said Donovan. “Representative Perry, Senator Gautreaux, and Dr. Strain, Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, should be praised for their leadership on this issue.”

    About Renergie
    Renergie was formed on March 22, 2006 for the purpose of raising capital to develop, construct, own and operate a network of ten ethanol plants in the parishes of the State of Louisiana which were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each ethanol plant will have a production capacity of five million gallons per year (5 MGY) of fuel-grade ethanol. Renergie’s “field-to-pump” strategy is to produce non-corn ethanol locally and directly market non-corn ethanol locally. On February 26, 2008, Renergie was one of 8 recipients, selected from 139 grant applicants, to share $12.5 million from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Renewable Energy Technologies Grants Program. Renergie received $1,500,483 (partial funding) in grant money to design and build Florida’s first ethanol plant capable of producing fuel-grade ethanol solely from sweet sorghum juice. On April 2, 2008, Enterprise Florida, Inc., the state’s economic development organization, selected Renergie as one of Florida’s most innovative technology companies in the alternative energy sector. By blending fuel-grade ethanol with gasoline at the gas station pump, Renergie will offer the consumer a fuel that is more economical, cleaner, renewable, and more efficient than unleaded gasoline. Moreover, the Renergie project will mark the first time that Louisiana farmers will share in the profits realized from the sale of value-added products made from their crops.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.