Old etching of a man coming to shore from a sailing ship

Sorghum Comes to America

Sorghum has been in the United States for a long time. The grain types commonly called “guinea corn” and “chicken corn” were introduced from West Africa at least two centuries ago. Both were probably packed as provisions on slave ships and reached the New World only inadvertently. Americans first grew these grains along the Atlantic coast but later took the crop westward where it found a better home in the drier regions. Later-arriving grain types include some that were deliberately introduced by seedsmen and scientists towards the end of the 1800s. By 1900, sorghum grain was well established in the southern Great Plains and in California; indeed, it had become an important resource in areas too hot and dry for maize.

Old illustration of some sorghum stalks.

The sorghum known as “broomcorn” was supposedly first cultivated in the United States by Benjamin Franklin. He is said to have started the industry in 1797 with seeds he picked off an imported broom. The stiff bristles that rise from the plant’s flower head have produced many of America’s brooms and brushes ever since. By the 1930s, for example, American farmers were cultivating 160,000 hectares (over 395,000 acres) of broomcorn.

The so-called “sweet” sorghum, with its sugar-filled stems, reached these shores in about the mid-1800s. It landed first in the Southern states—supposedly introduced as a cheap treat for slaves. Within 50 years, however, it had spread so widely and become so popular that sorghum was known as ”the sugar of the South.” Each locality in the Southern farm belt had a mill to crush sorghum stalks. The resulting syrup, a little thinner than molasses, became the sweetener of the region: poured over pancakes, added to cakes, and everywhere employed in candies and preserves. Today, this golden liquid is not so well known, but many rural communities still hold annual sorghum festivals and crude old mills squeeze out an estimated 120 million liters of syrup each year.

Old photo of men processing sorghum stalks into sorghum syrup.

This scene is in the back hills of North Carolina. Sugar sorghum has all but disappeared from commercial cultivation in the United States, but it is still grown on a small scale, mostly for home use. The thin greenish liquid squeezed out of the stalks is boiled down into sorghum molasses, thinner in consistency than sugarcane molasses, but lighter in color —an almost transparent golden shade.

Sudangrass was introduced in 1909. This form of “grass sorghum” is now used for animal feed throughout the nation’s warmer regions.

Source: National Research Council. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

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