Each year Rodney and Lynn Willis find a new way to modernize and improve their small farm. But whatever kind of modernization they add, the process of turning sugar stalks into an award-winning line of syrups is largely the same as it has been for generations.
The owners of Willis Farms, the husband and wife team devoted their twilight to the production of sorghum syrup, a kind of sweet syrup made from a sugar-like culture. And this month, after a summer growing season, they get back to work turning the stems into syrup.
“It’s good. We made 16 gallons of syrup on each run. It’s good for us,” Rodney said after the first week of production.
The process of turning over six feet of sorghum stalks into a sweet brown liquid that people put on cookies or spread on bread is remarkably simple, if not time consuming.
Once harvested, the stems are ground into a green pea juice so sweet you can smell it in the air around them. The juice is filtered through several strainers and placed in a saucepan where it heats up overnight, removing any impurities remaining in the plants. The rest of the mixture is brought to a boil until it turns into syrup.
“Our first year, we did this, we did everything with horses,” said Lynn. “We harvested the cane with a horse-drawn cart, and our mill was turned by a horse.”
Comparatively speaking, this year’s operation is something closer to the space shuttle program.
This mill is now propelled by a tractor. The juice extracted from the plants is passed through a vinyl tube that leads to a metal shed, which the Willis built this year to house their cooking and bottling operation.
“(Last year) the compression part was about the same, but it was all under a shed. We had a dirt floor,” Rodney said. “Now we have a concrete floor. We are totally enclosed. We have screens everywhere to keep insects out, hot water to clean up and it’s ventilated.”
Willis said the building was constructed so that his farm could be open to food safety inspections. Being able to pass them allows Willis Farms to sell its products at the largest farmers’ markets in the region.
“All of my piping and anything related to the juice has to be food grade material. This is something I had to learn as I went along,” he said. “I was using PVC pipe like a lot of people. It’s made for water, but not for food. So I got the vinyl tubing which is rated for food.”
Last year Willis Farms placed second in a national competition for sorghum syrup makers. They hope to improve their efforts this year.
“Right now, it’s going well,” said Lynn, who helps juice a preheated pan and bottles the final product. “Each step of the process is to remove impurities from the plant. We try to improve everything.”
The couple hope to produce around 150 gallons of syrup this year. They have already produced just over 40 gallons, using almost 400 gallons of plant juice.
Would you like to try it ?
Willis Farms syrups are sold in markets in the Charlotte area. They can also be purchased by calling 704-538-3476 or emailing [email protected]