By Brian E. Clark
ELKHART LAKE – Richard Wittgreve’s sorghum crop pales beside that of the state’s corn and soybean farmers, who have a combined 150,000 acres in production.
Still, his 20 acres of the cane-like grass – which he turns into a sweet, amber-colored syrup at his own mill — makes him the largest sorghum grower in the Badger State.
Wittgreve, president of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, said the amber-colored syrup is favored by some bakers and patrons of health food stores. It tastes like molasses, but is milder.
He said he expects to produce between 1,300 and 1,400 gallons of the gold-hued syrup this year – roughly 90 percent of the state’s total output.
Wittgreve, who earned a degree in agricultural engineering from Iowa State University in the late 1960s, has a fancy for doing things the old-fashioned way. Fittingly, sorghum production peaked in the United States late in the 19th Century.
Wittgreve also repairs dairy equipment, raises pumpkins and drives an Amish-built carriage pulled by a 2,000-pound Percheron draft horse for visitors to the 120-year old Osthoff Resort on the shores of Elkhart Lake.
“I like the diversity of all the things I do,” said Wittgreve. “It changes from season to season. I guess you could say I’m a Jack of all trades, like farmers traditionally had to be.”
Wittgreve got his first taste of sweet sorghum syrup as a child growing up near Reinbeck in northeastern Iowa.
“My grandfather, who grew the crop during the Depression, introduced me to it,” he said. “I liked the unique taste.”
Wittgreve was raised on a farm that grew corn and hay and raised cattle and hogs. He moved to Wisconsin in 1973 and now lives on a farm between Elkhart Lake and Kiel.
“I couldn’t find sorghum when I got here,” Wittgreve said. “And I thought because I farmed, I could grow it. So I read articles about the crop and did it.”
Once a major crop in the United States, Wittgreve said the country now has less than 500 growers.
“I don’t think anyone is making a living by growing it full-time,” he said. “I also believe only four or five of us are completely mechanized. Most are hobbyists because they like the taste.”
Wittgreve said sorghum was first cultivated thousands of years ago in Ethiopia and brought to the United States by slaves. It is now grown primarily in the South.
The peak for its production was in the 1880s, when more than 24 million gallons of the syrup were produced. It then began to decline and by 1975 – because of competition mainly from corn syrup – the U.S. Agricultural Census reported just 2,400 acres producing less than 400,000 gallons of syrup.
Since then, thanks to growers like Wittgreve, there has acreage planted in sweet sorghum has risen to between 25,000 and 30,000 acres.
Wittgreve said Midwestern farmers grew the purple-grained plant in part to replace imports from the South in the years prior to and during the Civil War.
By 1879, Wisconsin was processing 320,000 gallons of sorghum syrup annually. That paled compared to Southern states, which were producing 1.5 million gallons a year.
These days, Wittgreve sells his syrup by bulk over the Internet, by phone, at farmers’ markets, steam engine shows and at health food stores, including Outpost Natural Foods in the Milwaukee area.
“Folks can buy it in a four-ounce gift mug to a 55-gallon barrel for people who resell it or use it in bakeries,” he said.
Prices start at $5 for a pint to $8 for a quart. It is more expensive than molasses, a byproduct of sugar-making, but less expensive than maple syrup, which runs about $12 a quart.
To reach Wittgreve or order sweet sorghum syrup, email him at [email protected] or call (920) 876-2182. For more information on sorghum, see http://www.ca.uky.edu/nssppa/aboutsorghum/tenquestions.html