By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“Back in the day, from what I can understand, everybody used to grow sorghum and maybe one or two people had a mill in the community,” said Jeff McBryar. “You would bring it in and everybody would work together bringing it to harvest and then to grind it.”
And that kind of shindig is, pretty much, what McBryar hopes to bring back with his Sorghum Squeezing event on Oct. 13, to be held at his Lookout Mountain farm and meat store in conjunction with this year’s New Salem Festival.
This October will mark the first anniversary for McBryar’s business, Triple H Farms & Meat Company. McBryar held a grand opening for the locally grown, locally processed beef and pork operation during last year’s festival. Since then, he has kept the meat store open all day Fridays and on Saturday mornings. Triple H’s beef and signature homemade pork sausage are also available at the Trenton and Fort Oglethorpe Tractor Supply farmers markets, the Canyon Quick Stop and the Georgia Winery.
About 350 people came by for the grand opening, says McBryar, and he hopes many more will turn up this year for the Squeezing, the second stage of his quest to bring back the best parts of farming’s good old days.
“When I was growing up, out on Sand Mountain my Uncle Lamar, he had a neighbor, Budge Marona, who always grew a big sorghum cane patch. One of my favorite things I remember, he’d always harvest around Labor Day and we’d always have a big pig roast there, and next door Mr. Marona would have his mule and his press going around, and he would be cooking this molasses and just the smell coming up was terrific,” said McBryar. “I was 5 or 6 years old but I can always remember it, him cutting the cane and us stripping it and chewing on the cane, real sweet sorghum.”
The memory stayed with McBryar, and when he started work on Triple H, in addition to the little vegetable garden where he grows cayenne and habanero peppers for the hot sauces he sells in the store, he planted a neighboring field in sorghum.
“This is an heirloom seed that I grow. I purchased a small packet of seeds about four years ago and I started my crop from that,” said McBryar. “Each year as the plants grew, I was able to capture more and more seeds to replant.”
The heirloom variety is called Honeydrip, and McBryar says it’s easy to grow – just plant it in rows like corn. If you’re interested in giving it a shot, says McBryar, he’ll be happy to give you some seeds. “I guess the reason I’m doing this is to promote sorghum growth in the area,” he said. “It’s good for a number of things. There’s a lot more you can do with it rather than just put it on a buttered biscuit.”
Which, parenthetically, doesn’t sound half bad, and we should add here that hot sorghum syrup and sundry food vendors, as well as crafts booths and live music, will be on tap at the Oct. 13 Squeezing.
But the main event will be demonstrations in harvesting sorghum, extracting its juice, and boiling it down for the characteristic Southern syrup. Those demonstrations will begin at 9 a.m. and be repeated throughout the day as long as participants are interested.
For the Sentinel, McBryar demonstrated the initial stages of the syrup-making process: First the sorghum cane is cut and the leaves, which McBryar says can make the syrup bitter, are stripped off. Then McBryar feeds the canes into a mechanized mill that runs on diesel fuel. “This is a 1959 model, Chattanooga No. 13 mill,” he said. “This is set up for squeezing.”
In the old days, coming out of the mill would be a wooden pole that a mule would walk around and around with. That’s a part of history McBryar did not see fit to bring back: His mill is powered by a tractor engine. “The transmission and the gearbox have replaced the mule,” he said. “It’s a lot more safe these days. You don’t have to worry about the mule running over you.”
It’s also probably faster: Automatically, the mill sucks the canes through and spews forth a frothy sap. “It’s a juicer on steroids,” said McBryar.
This juice is tasty to drink as-is, and McBryar says it’s high in calories but a good energy drink. To make sorghum syrup, though, it must be boiled down until it is thicker and more compact. He owns a syrup pan and furnace for that part of the job, which will also be demonstrated at the Squeezing.
“We’ll have the syrup already available in jars, but we’re going to go through the whole process for people to see,” said McBryar. “We’re going to be harvesting a small batch in the morning. Then we’ll strip a small batch and cook a small batch so people can appreciate how it’s done.”
Finally, the leftovers are fed to the Triple H pigs rooting happily in the field behind the sorghum field. The pigs love eating the pressed canes, and McBryar says the sorghum flavors the resulting pork.
The Sorghum Squeezing is a free event that will, again, take place outdoors at Triple H on Oct. 13 beginning at 9 a.m. Triple H is located at 144 Zelpha Lane, Rising Fawn, just behind the Canyon Quick Stop on Highway 136 on Lookout Mountain – follow the signs from 136.
McBryar hopes his Sorghum Squeezing will not be an isolated event but the beginning of something bigger. “What I’d like to offer in the future, if we can get more people growing sorghum, is bring it here and we can squeeze it and everybody can make it a community event,” he said.
For more information McBryar may be reached at (706) 398-2333 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will also be on hand at the Georgia Winery’s annual Grape Stomp in Ringgold on Oct. 4.