A couple of years ago, when I visited my mother for Thanksgiving, I ended up trying to be a farmer.
Saturday morning, she was planning to go to a couple of syrup makings to get a few jars of cane syrup. Yeah, people still make syrup.
I’m not sure if it’s a south Alabama tradition or if there is just a small cluster of old timers that still do things the way it was done it the past. The same few people have made cane syrup for years.
One of the men still uses a mule to grind the cane into juice. I bought some syrup from him 10 years ago, and he was using a mule then. He’s still using a mule today, but I’m not sure if it’s the same mule or not.
Some of the other folks have modernized their syrup making operations somewhat. But, even though the operations are a little more efficient, they still have a do-it-yourself feel to them.
I’m naturally curious, so I was trying to figure out how one of the farmers was using his tractor to power the cane grinder. He’d jacked up the back wheels and blocked off the front tires to keep the tractor from sliding. He’s attached a belt to the axle and hooked the other end to a gear on the cane grinder.
I was kind of marveling the ingenuity of the contraption when the farmer came up and started explaining the whole process of making syrup. After each step, I asked a bunch of questions about how things worked. Basically, the sugarcane went into the tractor-powered grinder, through a wire mesh strainer and into a collection vat. From the vat, the cane juice was pumped into a cooker.
Now, the cooker was another piece of farm engineering. I guess it was about 20-by-3-feet long and maybe 6-inches deep.
The cane juice was pumped into one end through a wire mesh strainer and a couple of people would stir the juice through a series of S-shaped canals to the other end.
The farmer said they cooked the syrup by temperature and it took about 20 minutes to stir the juice from one end to the other. The further the juice traveled through the S-curves, the thicker it became. Eventually, it dripped out of a spout on the end of the cooker into a bucket covered with a final strainer of cheesecloth. From there, the syrup was transferred to quart-size mason jars and packaged for sale.
After the tour of the syrup-making shed, I was a little curious about how many gallons of syrup he planned to make. So, I started asking him some more questions, and that was where I started to get myself into trouble.
I found out that it takes roughly 10 gallons of cane juice to make one gallon of syrup. I did a little math in my head and figured out he and his workers had to grind out 2,500 gallons of juice.
Out of curiosity, I asked the guy how many acres of sugarcane it took to make 2,500 gallons of cane juice. He said it took about 10 acres.
The next question was what ended up making some work for myself.
“How exactly do you propagate sugar cane,” I asked.
Sugarcane looks similar to bamboo, and the guy explained to me at each node, there was what he called an “eye.” He told me to grow more sugar cane you simply snipped the sugarcane on each side of the “eye” and planted it six inches deep.
Still curious, I asked when to plant it.
He handed me a stalk of sugar cane and said take this and plant it in your mother’s backyard today or tomorrow. Each “eye” would produce about 30 stalks of sugarcane he said.
So Sunday morning, I was out early digging holes and planting sugar cane. I planted about 10 or 12 sections of sugarcane alongside a fence next to a field in my mother’s back yard.
My mother looked pretty pleased about the possibility she would have a small crop of sugarcane come this time next year.
So, my next question was “What are you going to do with 300-360 stalks of sugarcane?”
Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about harvesting the sugar cane. Nothing ever grew where I planted it but weeds.
Huck Treadwell’s column appears Tuesdays.