Sorghum: The Old-New Everything Crop

This resilient and versatile plant is experiencing a surge in demand and production as farmers and consumers rediscover its worth.

| Winter 2012/2013

Sorghum is an old crop that is suddenly new again. A tall grass, looking similar to corn, reaching above 10 feet in height, sorghum is a botanical powerhouse that today's small farmers and gardeners are rediscovering. The plant yields grain, sweet syrup, forage for livestock, and is an emerging source for biofuel. Sorghum even tolerates drought and heat that send corn packing. What crop offers us more?

Sorghums comprise about 20 grass species, mostly hailing from sub-Saharan Africa. Sorghum bicolor is the predominant commercial species, coming in two main types: grain sorghum or milo, grown for human and livestock consumption, and sweet sorghum, whose sweet juice is extracted and boiled down into a thick syrup, variously called molasses or just “sorghum.”

In recent decades, a third category has been added: hybrid types, collectively referred to as Sudan grass, are grown for their green leaves and stems, which are used as pasture, hay and silage. Finally, broom corn has been grown for centuries for its finely-branched seed heads. These, when trimmed and the seeds removed, provide excellent raw material for making brooms.

A grain crop widely grown in the South and Midwest for many years, sorghum has been under-utilized elsewhere in the country. Worldwide, however, milo has never ceased to be a major human food, mainly in areas like Africa and India, where the weather is often too hot or too dry to grow corn. There, sorghum is the staple grain of about a half-billion people, who make it into couscous, use it as a cereal, grind and bake into unleavened bread, or ferment it into alcoholic beverages.

Sorghum used to be very widely produced in the days when most Americans lived on family farms. The crop, brought from Africa as early as the 1600s, only rose to prominence in the 1850s, when sorghum presses became available. At that time, Isaac Hedges called it “the Northern Sugar Plant,” because of its high content of sucrose and fructose. The first known named variety was ‘Black Amber’, introduced from China via France, and still available.

Though today sorghum is regarded as mainly a Southern crop, it first caught on in the Midwest. Annual production of syrup reached 24 million gallons by the 1880s. It was only in the 1890s that the South became the dominant sorghum-growing region. Production then slowly dwindled over the decades, with the syrup becoming mainly a regional crop. This despite the fact that the syrup is second only to honey as a wholesome sweetener that can be produced with practicality on the small farm.

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