‘I have been meaning to reach out to the Church of the Brethren for 40 years’




Sorghum cane

by Steven I. Apfelbaum

From the early 1980s, I have fond memories of the nice young lady asking for volunteers at a small college in western North Carolina. I raised my hand and volunteered to work for hours beside her, and a big draft horse. Little did I know I’d spend several days hand cutting sorghum cane on the steep slopes of a Virginia mountain farm.

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The cane was bundled and then loaded on hay wagons, which were transported by mule to a shed with a cane crusher, large rollers into which we fed the cane. The sweet juice being expelled was greenish and frothy and was pumped into a stainless-steel tank strapped to a flatbed Chevy truck. 

I remember the fear, as I pressed against the passenger door, while the truck crept down the mountain in low gear, a controlled descent on the greasy rutted road to town. Peering from the window, the precipice was threatening, as the juice swished from side to side, and the truck lurched along. After that drive, I needed time to regain my composure. Finally, somewhat sheepishly, I finally asked and learned that we were to make sorghum molasses in a community kitchen in town. The pickup truck with the loads of apples we picked the day before had already been delivered, the apples waiting to be cooked down to make apple butter.

I didn’t know anything about community kitchens in general or the specific kitchen where I’d be working. I later learned it was sponsored by the Church of Brethren through a program called the Food Preservation Systems--a collaboration with the Ball Canning Company. As we arrived at the nondescript building, the manager of the kitchen guided us with hand motions and we backed to the loading dock. She introduced us to the rules, and talked about safety. I learned the apple producer and sorghum farmer rented the kitchen for that day and evening.

After instruction, we entered a world of steam kettles, juicing machines, canning kettles, food slicers, deep fryers, and more. Unloading was fast, and apples went from the initial plunge in the steam kettle to a device that removed the skins and seeds. The remaining pulp and juice was slurried into another steam kettle and was cooked down, making over 100 gallons of apple butter, which was promptly canned. The sorghum juice was evaporated, creating a large white cloud of steam, as it also was reduced to over 100 gallons of “sorghums,” as it was called locally.

This experience shaped my life. I learned that locally produced food access and the community kitchen were vitally important to the community and farmers. A third of the apple butter and sorghums was given to the community. The balance was sold to visitors along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This sale, I was to appreciate, represented a substantial part of each family’s annual income. I also appreciated the linkage between land, health, family, and community well being, and the connections to food supply, human health, and livelihoods.

Professionally and personally, this experience has been influential. For 44 years, on our southern Wisconsin farm, we have grown much of our own food. And on thousands of projects with communities around the world, we have helped to restore nature and the connections between people and the land and other people. Local food provides a common tangible bond, as people work together, helping build and maintain trust and durable relationships.  

I have been meaning to reach out to the Church of the Brethren for 40 years, to thank you for the vision you provided to the Virginia community, and I’m sure to others around the world. And also to express my appreciation to the Church of the Brethren for what your inspiration and vision has added to my life’s work, and in living with the earth.

-- Steven I. Apfelbaum is chair of Applied Ecological Services, Inc., an award-winning ecological restoration and sciences firm based in Brodhead, Wis. His books have inspired others to appreciate life, including “Nature’s Second Chance” (Beacon Press), which won national awards as one of the top 10 environmental books of 2009. He has contacted the Global Food Initiative (GFI) to inquire about Brethren interest in helping convert the commercial kitchen of a failed golf course to a shared community kitchen for farmers to transform crops into value-added products. For more information, contact GFI manager Jeff Boshart at JBoshart@brethren.org or steve@appliedeco.com .

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