Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sorghum Season!

At Sandhill today we cooked our first sorghum of the 2008 season. (Can fall colors be far behind?) It was a beautiful day, with temps in the lows 80s. We made about 50 gallons of satisfyingly light syrup, and have already filled several cases of the new crop in our distincive 1-lb and 1-quart jars. A good start.

Ten days ago
it was hard to imagine that conditoons would be so favorable. Our fields were totally saturated with the 6+ inches of rain that fell in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. For the first time in more than 15 harvests it was beginning to look like we were going to have to trudge through the mud to extract the cane, and that we wouldn't be able to drive on the fields. However (cross your fingers), that didn't happen. The skies cleared after the deluge ended Sept 14, we stop working on an ark, and it hasn't rained since. We've been lucky.

In addition, we have a crew of eager labor exchangers from Twin Oaks, our sister community in Virginia, who are helping us this opening week of the season—swarming the fields like locusts, pulling down the leaves, cutting the stalks with machetes, and stacking the cut cane in little piles, where they await the wagons that will collect it for the ride to the mill. Sorghum season is a social highlight of our calendar. Based on the notion that many hands make light work, this is the month when we most encourage people to visit, turning drudgery into festival. While it's a logistical challenge finding tent space for everyone and keeping the ravenous harvest crew fed from our community gardens, it's a labor of love. Our aim is to turn complexity into conviviality, and for the most part we succeed.

After more than three decades of sorghum harvests we've learned to trust the magic. We put out the call for help every year, and every year the people arrive when we need them. If we plant it, they will come. This is community at its best.

• • •
Today was also a day for working out the kinks in our systems. During the off-season, we've been tinkering. After limping along the last couple years, at the end of last season we bit the bullet and dsiassembled our ancient sorghum press. We had the giant rollers—gradually worn down by decades of pressing cane and the corrosive action of raw sorghum juice—re-milled, hopefully to last another 100 years. Today was the first trial with everything re-assembled, and there were some troubles getting everything seated properly. There was a lot of starting and stopping to tweak various nuts and bolts in our never-ending quest to extract every last drop of sweet juice from the stalks. When the mill is properly adjusted, the pith in the center of the stalk emerges from the last set of rollers bone-dry.

Meanwhile, down at the Sugar Shack (where we boil the juice) we also had some new features, most noticeably a foot-pedal-activated pump to transfer the finished sorghum into 55-gallon holding barrels (from which we bottle). We've been making sorghum since 1977 and, until today, we always transferred the finished sorghum from the cooking pans to the barrels in heavy-duty plastic buckets that involved heavy-duty lifting. Boy, is it nice to be done with that job!
• • •
There are still many hundreds of gallons of sorghum to make, and we'll be at for most of the next four weeks. The weather, of course, could deliver anything over that stretch, and who knows, we may have to deal with mud yet. Still, we've had an auspicious beginning, and for tonight at least, everyone on the farm is pretty happy about it.

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