When members of Mantachie High School FFA in Mississippi grew sweet sorghum as a chapter fundraiser in 2005, they had no idea it would blossom into an annual project that would become their chapter’s primary source of income.
“That first year, our students processed sorghum at a local farmer’s house, but we decided to let them get the full effect by building a big shed joining our ag shop at the school,” says C.W. Franks, Mantachie High School FFA co-advisor with Joe Rogers. “It took about four months for our students to build the shed, a cooking room and a chimney.”
Every May since then, Mantachie FFA members have been planting sweet sorghum seeds on three acres of land donated by a local farmer. By September, the crop is ready, and members harvest and crush the 8-foot stalks of cane before cooking it and bottling it to sell to members of the community.
“We’ve sold our sorghum in 18 states, and we even sent some to soldiers in Iraq a few years ago,” Franks says. “A soldier in Iraq read a newspaper article online about our sorghum project, and he wrote to say he couldn’t wait to get home to try some. So we sent him a couple gallons, and the soldiers sent us back pictures of them enjoying a treat from home in their mess hall. It was pretty neat.”
For the 52 members of Mantachie FFA, the sorghum project is a labor of love they have the privilege of seeing come full circle.
“So often you don’t get to see the whole process in agriculture,” Franks says. “But our kids get to see the actual planting all the way to harvesting, processing and selling the finished product.”
Mantachie FFA President Drew Garrett says the sorghum project teaches students the value of hard work.
“It’s a lengthy, tedious process, and there are days when we are really tired of sorghum,” Drew says. “But in the end, it makes me proud to see the finished product and hear people say how much they enjoy it.”
“A soldier in Iraq read a newspaper article online about our sorghum project, and he wrote to say he couldn’t wait to get home to try some.”
The sorghum is usually ready by Nov. 1. The chapter sells it by the pint ($6) or by the quart ($12), and many customers buy several quarts for family and friends as Christmas gifts.
“It tastes really good with butter on biscuits. It has a stronger flavor than maple syrup,” Drew explains. “I also know people who put it in cakes or in oatmeal.”
Mantachie FFA Vice President Sam Kirksey enjoys the sorghum project because it’s so unusual.
“You can’t do anything like it in any other class,” Sam says. “I enjoy the cooking part of the process most, where we cook the sorghum in a big pan over a fire pit. It has also taught me how to oversee a project from beginning to end.”
Word of Mantachie FFA’s sorghum has been far-reaching. Several newspapers and magazines have published articles about the project, prompting curious out-of-towners to travel to observe Mantachie FFA members crushing and cooking the sorghum.
“Lots of folks have offered to help us, especially senior farmers who are in their 70s and 80s,” Franks says. “They like to watch us cook the sorghum, and they share with us how they used to do it when they were kids. It carries them back to the good old days.”
Mantachie FFA uses money from sorghum sales to run their chapter and fund trips to conventions, summer camps and retreats. They also run a meat processing lab (one of only two in the state) and two greenhouses, both of which raise money for their chapter.
“We teach processing of beef, swine, deer and wild game in a two-year program. Our students process about 450 deer per year,” Franks says. “It’s great for our community – our kids take orders from hunters and process meat how they want it. Then they pay us a processing fee. It runs like a little business.”
Every spring, members raise vegetable and flower plants in the greenhouses to sell.
“Some FFA chapters have closed or merged because they were unable to get funding,” Garrett says. “But we’ve found that a chapter can sustain itself without outside support. Introduce a project like sorghum or a greenhouse to get students involved and raise money. It’s like operating a business.”
Franks has taught at Mantachie High School for 31 years and beams with pride when asked about his students.
“We have super good kids who are interested and motivated, which makes our job easy because they want to do these projects,” he says. “It’s a fun job. I’ve never gotten up in the morning and not wanted to come to work.”
Sweet Sorghum 101
From start to finish, the sorghum process takes about six months. Here’s how Mantachie FFA members grow, harvest and process the sweet stuff:
• In late May, the sorghum crop is planted.
• Throughout the summer months, the crop is sprayed periodically.
• In late September, the 8-foot-tall cane stalks are ready for harvest.
• An old-fashioned corn binder (redesigned for use with a tractor) cuts down 10 to 15 stalks at a time and ties them together.
• Students pick up the stalks and bring them to the shed to be crushed.
• Stalks of cane are fed through a sorghum crusher, which extracts a light green juice with a high sugar content.
• The juice is strained and stored in 15-gallon barrels in a walk-in cooler.
• When members have collected between 250 and 300 gallons of juice, it’s time to cook it. (Ten gallons of juice produces one gallon of sorghum.)
• The juice is cooked in a 10- by 3-foot-wide pan a fire pit with pine slabs. Fans in the cooking room help with the tremendous amount of steam emitted.
• As the sorghum cooks, members “skim” it, or remove a green layer of chlorophyll that rises to the top.
• The cooking process changes the sorghum’s color from light green to golden brown. The juice cooks for about three hours before it’s ready to be removed from heat.
• After cooking, sorghum is strained again to remove any impurities.
• The sorghum cools and is poured into two stainless steel pots with valves at the bottoms.
• Members bottle the sorghum in pints and quarts, top them with a safety seal and label them with custom-made FFA tags.