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Sweet Sorghum for Syrup in the Mountains-2002 Report

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This is a 2002 report from a NC Specialty Crops Program Project. It is posted for historical reference purposes.

PROJECT LEADER(S): Johnny Hensley, Stanley Holloway
LOCATION: Yancey, Madison and Buncombe counties


Production of sweet sorghum for syrup is a potential source of supplemental income for farmers in western North Carolina. This project was undertaken to identify sorghum varieties that are appropriate for our region and resistant to disease and lodging. On-farm trials in 2002 were focused on improving the yield, quality and efficiency of the sorghum harvest. While some success was reported by growers, results were limited due to severe weather conditions in several locations. Reduction in harvest labor was achieved through the utilization of a corn binder. Educational venues introduced many growers to this specialty crop, and effectively demonstrated processing equipment and techniques to the public.

Sorghum for syrup has been grown in the southeastern United States since its introduction in 1857. Production of sweet sorghum currently practiced in the mountains is very labor intensive. Sugar Drip, the most widely grown variety locally produces a good quality syrup; however, this variety produces relatively low yields, and is very susceptible to most sorghum diseases, particularly stalk red rot and maize dwarf mosaic. Sugar Drip is also very prone to lodging, which hinders harvesting of the crop. Growers may lose an entire crop of this variety due to disease or lodging.

The objective of this project was to promote grower trials of disease resistant varieties of sorghum, and to evaluate their potential for increased yields and syrup quality. Another objective was to explore possibilities for adaptation of mechanical harvesting to reduce labor involved in production of sorghum syrup.


Through investigation with other producers and specialists at the University of Kentucky and Mississippi, several varieties of sorghum were identified as potential varieties for production in western North Carolina. Seeds of the following varieties were obtained for planting by interested producers: Dale, Topper 76-6, Simmons, Sugar Drip, Keller, M81-E, and Theis.

An educational meeting for interested sorghum producers was conducted at the Cooperative Extension Center in Burnsville in early April of 2002. Growers from Yancey, Madison and Buncombe counties participated in the meeting. Participants were informed of the various varieties and characteristics, including the days required for maturity, relative resistance to lodging and resistance to sorghum diseases. Some possible labor saving mechanisms were also discussed.

During the month of April and early May, other interested sorghum producers also learned of the available varieties of sorghum seed. None of the interested growers wanted to try the M81-E variety or the Theis variety because of their required growing days to maturity of approximately 130 days.

Ten interested producers in three counties obtained sorghum seeds of one or more varieties to plant in three mountain counties.

A second grower meeting was conducted later in the summer to discuss harvesting and processing of the sorghum. Various items of equipment to assist with evaluation of sugar content, filtration, harvesting, and processing were purchased and utilized by some producers.


Approximately 7 acres of sorghum were planted in the spring of 2002 by 10 producers to evaluate sorghum varieties that have not traditionally been produced in our area. A small quantity of the Della variety was also planted to produce seed for the 2003 season. One Yancey County producer planted approximately 0.10 acre of each of the varieties available, in addition to a variety of unknown origin from seeds obtained while visiting a sorghum demonstration at the Dollywood resort. That variety is believed to be M81-E.

Several growers experienced severe freezes during May 19-22, 2002, with overnight low temperatures dropping into the low 20’s. Several growers also experienced very poor germination of the Topper-76 variety. Some growers who had their crop killed in the freezes of May decided it was too late in the season to replant. The remainder of the growing season for 2002 was far from normal following the unusually late freeze.

Some locations experienced extended drought from mid-May through the end of August. In those locations, the sorghum crop was slow to grow and never reached the usual height and stalk size expected. However, one location in the Yancey County area was relatively unaffected by either the drought or the late freeze in May. Yield data from that producer is displayed in the following chart by variety. Note: the data is from approximately 0.10 acre size plots, now replicated and converted to 1 acre yields.

Woodby Farm, 2002 – Yancey County
Variety Gallons Juice/Acre Gallons Syrup/Acre
Simmons 1200 132
Sugar Drip 1400 168
Keller 1300 188
Dale 1500 225
(Source: Dollywood)
1600 248
Topper 76-6 700 insufficient data

The juice from these varieties was processed on a batch cooker by the producers’ family. The grower expressed a preference for the quality and taste of the syrup from the Sugar Drip and Dale varieties. None of the varieties produced at this location experienced lodging problems or were affected by sorghum diseases in this growing season.

An old John Deere corn binder was donated to Cooperative Extension for use in this sorghum project. Estimated retail value of the corn binder is approximately $550.00. The binder was equipped with new tires and placed in service on one farm to assist in reducing harvest labor. Funds from the Specialty Crops grant were also utilized to design and build a portable propane fired cooker that is trailer mounted. The portable cooker was demonstrated at the annual Hillbilly Farm Days in Yancey County. Approximately 100 visitors to the Hillbilly Farm Days observed the portable cooker demonstration. The cooker was also displayed at the Madison Campus of AB Tech in February, 2003 during the Cooperative Extension Farm Days Seminars. Stanley Holloway conducted a session to familiarize producers with sorghum production, which was attended by 8 individuals.


Sweet Sorghum production for syrup can offer small producers an alternative crop for increasing farm income. The processing of Sorghum Syrup can be an attraction for visitors to the area, as well as old-time residents who remember sorghum being produced in almost every neighborhood in the past. Some large operations for sorghum production now exist in Kentucky and Tennessee, where growers have adapted to mechanical harvesting techniques and are utilizing various improved means of processing. Growers in North Carolina need to have the opportunity to visit some of the large-scale operations in Tennessee and Kentucky to observe cultural and processing techniques being practiced there.

Growers need to continue to explore disease resistant varieties adaptable to the growing season of western North Carolina. Yields of 200-250 gallons of syrup per acre are possible with improved disease resistant varieties. Quality and color of syrup can be enhanced by the use of available technology being utilized by some producers in Kentucky and Tennessee. Hours of labor to produce and process sorghum syrup can be reduced by mechanizing some aspects of the harvesting process and utilizing the pre-heating method during the processing of the juice to syrup.

North Carolina growers are looking for specialty crops that offer sufficient economic return to increase farm income, to supplement or replace tobacco income. At least one family has experienced success in producing sorghum syrup for the first time. One of the family members expressed this statement: The effort of sorghum syrup production and processing was the best thing his family has done in many years. All of his aunts and uncles, and many of his neighbors gathered each morning that they cooked sorghum to visit, socialize, or help with pressing juice, cooking sorghum or canning the syrup. He said that no other event had brought his father and family members together in such a way in many years. They plan to increase their planting next year. Other producers will convert more planting next year to a disease-resistant variety.

As a result of our experience with this project, we attended the National Meeting of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association in Clarksville, Tennessee February 27-March 1, 2003. We enjoyed visiting with the more than 150 members who attended the National Meeting, and learning of the many diverse populations involved or intrigued with sorghum production.

We plan to conduct two 2-hour workshops this spring to share what we have learned with any interested producers from the mountain region. Anyone interested in learning more about sorghum production is encouraged to visit the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association web site at

Reviewed by Jeanine Davis, NC Alternative Crops & Organics Program, Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University on 7/26/2022.