Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Change Is in the Bag

I spent last weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Lawrence KS. While there's nothing new about my spending an October weekend at a fair selling Sandhill's food products (we've been doing that since 1977—the first year we made sorghum), this was a new fair for us. In fact, it was a new fair for everybody.

Mother Earth started experimenting with fairs three years ago to create "a fun-filled, family-oriented sustainable lifestyle event featuring practical, hands-on demos and workshops. Learn about renewable energy, small-scale agriculture, livestock, gardening, green building, natural health and more. We also hand-select local and national exhibitors to bring you the best in organic food and drink, books and magazines, tools and seeds, green contractors, animal fibers, clothing and more."

Their pioneer effort was at Seven Springs PA in September 2010. This went so well that they tried a second venue in Puyallup WA in June 2011. This year's production in downtown Lawrence marks their third location—and first foray into the Midwest, only 27 miles down I-70 from where the magazine is published in Topeka. Next year, they'll open up a fourth venue in Asheville NC. All are conceived as annual events.

The timing and location for Sandhill could hardly have been better: deep into our sorghum harvest and right at the tail end of our gardening season—when we'll have replenished our supply of specialty condiments, and it's late enough in the year for the horseradish to reach full strength.

This past weekend we were blessed with superb weather (no rain, little wind, and temperatures in the 70s each day) and the crowds were terrific, especially for a gathering that had never gathered before. Usually it takes a few years to build up interest in an annual event.

While Lawrence is a long distance for us to travel for a fair (520 miles round trip), I was able to stay with friends and we grossed nearly $1700, which can compensate for a lot of gas.

The vendors were an eclectic assortment of natural food producers (like us), purveyors of alternative energy systems, homestead appropriate technology demonstrators, manufacturers of miracle Green products, and food shed organizers. It was an odd mix. Sandhill, for example, was placed between: a) someone shilling a machine that produced vehicle grade hydrogen from distilled water; and b) two young women selling glow-in-the-dark globs that could be shaped to suit your fancy and recharged by sunlight or exposure to ultraviolet. I think they were marketing their product for its safety value (navigating after dark in unlit spaces), but the greatest enthusiasm seemed to be generated among the younger set (from tweens to twentysomethings) who were drawn by the glow beads' potential as a fashion accessory.

There is a certain mind-numbing aspect to answering the same baker's dozen set of basic questions all day for two days:

What's sorghum?
A: It's a grass that looks a lot like corn when it's immature. The juice in the stalk carries a high sugar content when the seed head ripens. We cut the cane, squeeze the juice in a roller mill, and then cook down the juice to yield the syrup in the jar. It's a traditional sweetener in the Midwest and South, and the syrup is just as sweet as honey.

What's the difference between sorghum and molasses?
A: Molasses is a byproduct of white sugar manufacture. In both cases, cane is squeezed to yield a sweet juice that is subsequently evaporated down to a syrup (that has about 20% residual water). In the case of sorghum, that's what's in the jar. To make white sugar, the syrup is intentionally crystallized and the crystals are then separated from the surrounding liquid. At this stage, the crystals are essentially brown sugar, and the liquid residue is molasses. 

Both molasses and sorghum have a brown color because the plants draw iron from the ground. However, good sorghum should always be mild flavored and never bitter—things that can't be said of blackstrap molasses.
Do you strip your leaves?
A: Yes. Though that is no longer the industry standard, we still strip our leaves before milling the cane.
Is this pure sorghum? 
A: Yes. Many producers cut their sorghum with corn syrup, both because it lightens the color (which sells better) and because corn syrup is dirt cheap.
Why is your sorghum so dark?
A: Back when sorghum was the mainstay sweetener on the farm, people wanted a product that was as bland as possible (so everything didn't taste like sorghum). One way to achieve that result was to grow cane on the same patch of poor ground every year, sacrificing yield in order to get light-colored, bland-tasting syrup.

While that's still the market standard (much as grade A maple syrup is light colored and has less maple flavor than grade B), today sorghum is a specialty product that costs a premium. If you want bland, buy Karo—which is inexpensive and has no taste at all. Because we have a baseline commitment to farming sustainably, we refuse to run down our ground to produce lighter sorghum. Instead, we emphasize good-tasting sorghum—and suffer the steady stream of a questions about why our sorghum isn't lighter.

Will Sandhill sorghum turn to sugar?
A: It might. Sorghum is a complex mixture of sucrose, fructose, and glucose. The tendency to crystallize is related to the percentage of sucrose; if it's above a certain point then the syrup will crystallize.

Because customers—and stores—don't like sorghum that's sugared (even though there's nothing wrong with it, it doesn't pour well and it's a hassle to re-liquefy it by placing it in a pan of hot water), we do three things to minimize cyrstallization:
a) We don't harvest cane until it's ripe, which improves the sugar ratios favorably.
b) We let the cane sit in the field for up to a week after it's been cut and before it's milled, which decreases the percentage of sucrose in the sugar mix.
c) We add invertase, a natural enzyme, to the hot sorghum right after it's been cooked, which helps convert some of the sucrose to fructose and glucose.

Despite all of these measures though, sometimes our sorghum will sugar.

How hot is your horseradish?
A: It depends on how well you tolerate heat. Instead of answering directly, we tell customers to taste it and judge for themselves.

What makes the horseradish red?
A: While mostly we sell plain white horseradish, we make a small amount of it red, by adding pickled beets. This is a traditional Eastern European style recipe, and a definite eye-catcher on our table. The beets make the horseradish slightly sweet, slightly less hot, and a whole lot redder.
How long will your horseradish last?
A: Fresh horseradish starts to go downhill (less strong) as soon as it's made. While it lasts longer refrigerated, and shelf life is extended by adding small amounts of honey and salt to each batch, our main strategy is to make it fresh right before each fair and sell it only in small jars.
Do you put horseradish in your mustard?
A: No, though this answer is a bit disingenuous. The bite in our mustard is wholly generated by fresh ground mustard seed, but horseradish is in the same botanical family as mustard and both products get their potency from volatile oils that are quite similar. Still, while we sell both products side by side on our fair table, there is none of the one in the other. If you want horseradish mustard (which is not a bad thing) you need to buy a jar of each and mix it yourself.
Do you make this stuff yourself?
A: We make everything on our table at our farm, using ingredients we've grown ourselves wherever possible. None of our products have been manufactured elsewhere for resale by us.
Are you local?
A: It depends on where the fair is, and what you consider "local." At Lawrence, our farm was 250 miles east northeast removed from the conversation. (In contrast, the glow-bead ladies had just breezed in from Denver, and were en route to Atlanta next weekend.)
Will the pepper relish (or salsa) be too hot for me?
A: Again, this is wholly a matter of the customer's baseline for "hot." Unlike our horseradish and mustard (where the heat comes from oils), the cha cha in our salsa and relishes comes from capsicum (mainly jalapeños). For some, our mild condiments are over the top; for hardened pepper heads though, even our all-jalapeño offerings barely register on their personal Scoville scale. You never know, and that's why we encourage people to taste things.

• • •
After being caught in the auditory envelope of my spiel for two days, I joked with my glow-bead neighbor Sunday afternoon that she could probably run my booth herself, and she agreed.

While the crowd was very predictable in the mix of questions they posed, there was one way in which they stood out as different than what we usually see. This crowd did not ask for bags to carry their purchases. While partly this was due to a sponsoring company handing out free woven tote sacks (with their logo printed on the side), mostly it was due to this being a crowd that was drawn to Mother Earth's sustainability theme. Many people came with knapsacks, or their own tote sacks; others simply carried things by hand or used bags they got from a prior purchase.

Normally, at a fair with this volume of traffic, we'd be asked for bags six times per hour. (In fact, we save up plastic shopping bags all year just to be able to meet the demand for bag requests during fairs with a reused product.) At Lawrence, however, I was astounded that we were only asked for a bag three times in two days

Who says people can't change? From what I saw last weekend, it's in the bag.

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