Bringing sorghum back to life

DUNDAS, Ill. -- It's been a while since sorghum has been used as a popular sweetener, but Dundas, Ill., resident Jim Zerkle is doing his part to bring it back.

DUNDAS, Ill. -- It's been a while since sorghum has been used as a popular sweetener, but Dundas, Ill., resident Jim Zerkle is doing his part to bring it back.

Sorghum is classified as a cereal grass grown for grain, syrup and fodder. For the last few years, Zerkle has been growing and processing it to make jars of the amber-colored syrup that he says makes for a healthy and versatile alternative to modern store-bought sweeteners.

Zerkle originally started growing it in the mid-1980s and had another man process it for him. He stopped growing it for a while and began again about four years ago, this time processing it himself.

Zerkle processes 30 to 40 gallons of syrup a year, the results of about half an acre of sorghum planted in scattered patches on his and wife Marjorie's property.

Not about the money


Selling jars of it at the Richland County Farmers Market and at his residence, Zerkle says he probably would be losing money if he were doing it for a living, but it is about more than money to him.

"It's part of our past," he says, also touting its nutritional value. "I hope to expose people to it again."

Zerkle plants his crop around the same time as a soybean crop is planted, during the last part of May or the first part of June.

The plant requires a bit of special care, Zerkle says. The leaves on the stalks have to be stripped before a frost or the juice will sour.

Harvest is in the later part of September or early October. When harvested, the leaves are stripped and then the heads of the stalks are cut.

The stalks sometimes are formed into a stock before they are put through an old John Deere cane mill that Zerkle says was made around the turn of the 20th century.


To extract the juice, which one can taste by cutting into a stalk and biting into its exposed end, the plant is fed into the hand-cranked machine, which Zerkle says can exert about 200 pounds of pressure as it squeezes the liquid from the stalks, through a pipe and into a plastic bucket.


The juice is poured through a filter when the 5-gallon bucket is about a fourth full. After enough has been extracted, it is poured into a handmade metal cooker that is heated by a wood fire.

The open rectangular cooker can hold roughly 40 gallons of the juice, which cooks down to about 8 gallons as it reaches a temperature of 230 degrees. A temperature above or below 230 will not result in the consistency Zerkle wants and also could scald the syrup.

Zerkle, who usually has some help with the process from his uncle, Bud Zerkle, or Bud's son, Fred, watches the liquid as it boils and fills the air with a sweet, smoky scent.

During the cooking, Zerkle has to skim starch and impurities that rise to the top. Although he uses a thermometer secured to rods and suspended over the cooker, Zerkle says a person can tell the liquid is at 230 degrees when bubbles about the sizes of quarters start forming.

When the optimum temperature is reached, the cooker is moved onto a nearby set of rollers and emptied. The scalding syrup is placed into containers for cooling and is filtered again before it is placed into jars which are affixed with labels.

Zerkle, who is a member of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, says his sorghum is all natural and retains all of its sugars and other nutrients.

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