By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
ETTA – “Slow as molasses” has a multitude of meanings, and sorghum syrup maker Terry Norwood knows ’em all.
There’s the long summer of growth between planting tiny sorghum seeds and harvesting the tall, grass-family plants.
There’s the three- to five-day wait after cutting and bundling to let nature work on the sugars in the stalks before running it through an antique roller apparatus to squeeze the juice out.
And even when the sorghum has been squeezed, the fire is hot and the steam is rising, it seems an eternity before the first clear juice cooks down into the thick amber syrup that some folks say is the best friend a biscuit ever had.
Sorghum is in Norwood’s blood.
“My uncle, great-uncle, granddaddy and great-granddaddy were all sorghum makers,” he said.
It was away from home that Norwood first made his own sorghum.
“Actually I had a fellow that was helping me when I was farming in Tennessee,” he said. “His brother made syrup, so he and I would grow eight or 10 rows, enough for us to have a little bit. They had all the equipment, and I learned a little bit.”
When Norwood started teaching vocational agriculture at Ingomar, he and his students raised sorghum for the school festival.
“We cooked down at the school a couple of years, but as a rule the kids weren’t as enthused about it as I was,” he said. “I loaded up equipment one day, and I landed right there under this tree. That’s where my great-granddaddy and my granddaddy cooked.”
For 30 years since, Norwood has spent much of every fall making sorghum molasses in a rustic but efficient building of his own construction. When any of several plantings reaches a certain maturity, he uses one ancient machine to decapitate the seed heads, then another to cut the stalks and tie them in bundles.
“We want to leave it in the field for three to five days to let the leaves dry up, let the cane mellow,” he said. “Once that cane is cut off the ground, the natural enzymes take over and change that form of sugar so it can be cooked down.” He grinds the stalks in the field until he fills a 300-gallon converted milk tank that keeps the juice at 34 degrees for a day or two, until he cooks it down to 30 gallons of syrup the next day.
Norwood, a board member of the National Association of Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors, said sorghum takes over his life in the fall.
“When I started, I was farming in a pretty big way, but eventually this got to be the tail that wagged the dog,” he said. Even when he went to work with Farm Bureau full time, his sorghum making only increased.
Though the principle is the same – sugary juice concentrated into thick syrup – sorghum and sugar cane are different plants. Sugar cane yields several years’ harvest from one laborious planting in its favored climes but won’t reliably survive winters in Northeast Mississippi.
Sweet sorghum has to be replanted each year, but it’s an easy process. The juicy grass will reliably grow even in parts of the Midwest, although it has long been identified with the rural South.
“It’s very cheap to grow an acre of sorghum,” he said. “I’ve got a pound-and-a-half of seed and no fertilizer. I may plow it, but until it’s ready to harvest, we really haven’t got anything in it.
“When we say it’s ready to harvest, the fun’s over and the work starts.”
The juice trickles down a tube to one end of the slightly tapered, 12-foot-long copper cooking pan, under which a fire made from dry pine sawmill slabs heats the juice, boiling off most of the liquid and concentrating the sugars in a 90-minute trip around several baffles. At the syrup end of the pan, Norwood lifts the scalding liquid over the last barrier, which prevents partially cooked juice from mixing with the finished molasses.
Norwood’s wife, Debbie, likes to bring their grandson, Lem Tate, to the syrup shed while she pours syrup into quart- and pint-sized plastic jugs and caps them.
“He’s taking it all in,” she said of the 1-year-old. “He’s learning how to make syrup.”
While the Norwoods sell some of their crop at festivals and pumpkin patches and some through mail order to out-of-state and out-of-country customers, most of it leaves with folks who come down their driveway.
“When Ole Miss is playing at home, we’ll put a sign out on Highway 30, and there’ll be a string of cars out here,” Terry Norwood said.
Even though much of the work is within the capacity of one man, syrup making often remains a social event, with both new customers and old friends hanging around, trying (or pretending) to be useful. It evokes memories of now-gone relatives and friends who used to do the same.
“My daddy was my fireman, and Woodrow Gray and Daddy would get out here on Saturday evening, lying and telling stories,” Norwood said. “I told them a time or two, ‘If y’all are going to help me, y’all are going to have to help me right or I’m going to fire you.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, as soon as you start paying us, you can fire us.’
“We had a lot of fun. I’d give anything to have them back.”
Sorghum making is still a family affair for the Norwoods, but to keep it that way Terry Norwood had to mechanize, cobbling together a cutter-binder from corn pickers last made in the 1940s.
“I used to take my personal days when I was teaching at Independence to take a machete and cut sorghum by hand,” Debbie Norwood said. “Eventually I told him, ‘I’m too old for this.’ It had to go to a one-man operation; Terry has got it down to a fine art.”
Terry Norwood remembers the moment of truth.
“One time I got told I could probably run around with the best-looking woman in Union County and talk my way out of it but that if I planted any more sorghum I was probably going to get a divorce,” he joked. “It’s been in the family, and it kind of got to be an obsession.”