For generations, farmers in the mountains of Appalachia have harvested sorghum and then slowly cooked it down into a sweet amber syrup, perfect for mixing with butter and slathering on hot biscuits.

Once a staple of every Southern kitchen, sorghum is now harder to find, losing space on store shelves to much cheaper refined sugar or molasses. But hands-on testing at the Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center is showing that sorghum production could help small-scale farmers expand and diversify their farms.

Manager Adam Taylor planted a small, half-acre plot of sorghum at the 377-acre farm property in Roanoke County. He is studying whether the labor required to grow, harvest, and process it could be profitable for local farmers.

“We are trying to find crops that would benefit farms in the region. Our half an acre of sorghum plants yielded about 5 gallons of syrup, which then sells for up to $18 per quart,” Taylor said. “Sorghum doesn't need a lot of land or much maintenance. Once value is added by processing it into the syrup, it can actually be fairly profitable.”

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Because the Appalachian climate isn’t right for growing sugar cane, 19th century homesteaders used syrup produced from sorghum instead. A canelike grass that originated in Africa, sorghum looks a bit like corn as it grows. Most mountain communities had their own sorghum mill where residents would gather after each fall harvest to make the sweetener by crushing the tall stalks and then boiling the green juice. It’s a labor-intensive process that results in a thick syrup with a distinctive smoky taste.

The syrup can be used as a sweetener for cakes, cookies, and candy or mixed into grits or porridge. 

For guidance on processing the sorghum, Taylor turned to Blacksburg couple Kerry and Sula Hay. They have been making sorghum syrup for more than 30 years and have their own mill.

“Working with Kerry and Sula was kind of the highlight for me. A lot of the techniques we look at everyone thinks, ‘That's new and that's so cool.’ But they are actually techniques that farmers have been using for decades. That knowledge, though, is being lost,” Taylor said. “Now, there’s renewed interest in those old ways among small-scale farmers in Southwest Virginia, and that is helping build more resilient land-based economies.”

Although the syrup Taylor made with the Hays was bottled and given away, the center plans to plant more sorghum and keep perfecting its process. That knowledge will then be shared with local farmers.

The Catawba Sustainability Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, serves as a living laboratory to advance environmental stewardship and community engagement. It provides a learning environment for the research, teaching, and demonstration of sustainable practices in agriculture, forestry, and land management.

Written by Emily Maher