Monday, October 6, 2014

Sorghum for $9

I'm was in St Louis this past weekend, attending the Best if Missouri Market at the Botanical Gardens. Sandhill Farm—my old community—used to participate regularly in this event, but it's a by-invitation-only deal and we lost favor with the selection committee back around 2002. Sandhill was able to achieve rehabilitation this year by combining its application with the Milkweed Mercantile at Dancing Rabbit, who were first-time applicants.

Here's a promotional image for the event used by a local television station in the Gateway City:
Note the prominent display (left of center) of a half-pint of watermelon jelly made by Mrs. Milkweed (who masquerades in day-to-day life as Alline Anderson, my neighbor and fellow impresario in the condiment business).

Alline had secured an end booth in the center aisle of Tent #2, which gave us three sides to sell from. That turned out to be brilliant as we were peddling stuff fast and furious, keeping three people busy most of the time. We were on duty for 21 hours during the stretch from 6 pm Friday through 5 pm Sunday answering inquires, giving out samples, wrapping purchases, running credit cards, and making change. (Boy, did it ever feel good to sit down at the end of the day!)

The highlight of the weekend was having Brenda Stemler stop by our table. She sampled our sorghum and bought a pint on Saturday. The reason that's a big deal is that she's a past president of NSSPPA (National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association), and her family has been making sorghum since the Depression (the one that started in 1929; not the one in 2008). That means she absolutely knew good sorghum when she found it, and couldn't resist buying some of ours. A high compliment.

Then she came back Sunday and bought a quart for her father—the paterfamilias of the sorghum-making Stemlers. An even higher compliment.

Reflecting on the Stemler tradition got me thinking about how long I've been associated with sorghum making. I go back pretty far myself. It was amusing to realize that there have been a lot changes since I first started attending fairs for Sandhill's in 1977, where we sold sorghum at the Bethel Harvest Fest (now defunct), and at the inaugural edition of the Hannibal Historic Folklife Festival. That year you could buy a gallon of Sandhill sorghum for $9.
Today, you can still buy a jar for $9—but only a pint. Interestingly, that's about what a gallon of raw juice will yield after we cook it down. Now we sell a gallon of syrup for $50. We've come a long way, baby.

In fact, I recall that a number of our elderly customers back in the late '70s were fond of telling us that they used to be able to buy a gallon pail of sorghum for $1, and that their parents used to buy it for as little as 25¢. That last must have been before even the Stemlers were in the sweet sorghum business. Think of it: in a century the price has for a gallon of biscuit topping has risen 200 times!

I tell you, $9 just doesn't buy today what it did then.