A FEW weeks ago, my neighbor raced all day and night to harvest his soybeans, the headlights of his combine flashing out over the field well past midnight, bringing in the crop before yet another storm drenched our saturated Iowa ground. Then, early the next morning, his manure tank truck wound its way back and forth over the stubble. By 11 a.m., the stench was so pungent you didn't want to open your mouth for fear of tasting it. But just as I was about to flee and head into town, another odor wafted in through the screen door, a sugary smell that conjured up pancakes and popcorn balls. The Amish were pressing sorghum.
Sorghum, a member of the grass family, looks a lot like corn, although the seed is clumped in a panicle rather than an ear. Probably indigenous to Africa, its deep branching roots make it drought resistant, and it has done well in the warmer Great Plains regions of the United States. Innumerable varieties abound. The fibers of broomcorn sorghums are used for brooms, grass sorghums for pasture and hay, and pulverized grain sorghums for livestock and poultry feed. Only a small amount of sweet sorghum, the cane juice of which is boiled into molasses, is grown at all, and most of that is locally consumed.
So instead of driving into town, I meandered down the gravel road, ``following my nose'' into a long sweeping lane. Rows of white fence boards led me up a gentle hill. There, the molasses mill stood on top of the rise. The building consisted of a series of pole sheds hammered together and open on three sides to the elements and the roof, a piece of tin tacked to the beams. A gaping hole was left near the roof's peak to allow the steam rising from the copper coil-lined cauldrons to escape. The stovepipe poked through another hole in the tin, and smoke from the rusty wood-fed boiler billowed out over the valley.
The mill was ``homemade'' and run by a family of three - a husband and wife in their 60s, the grossdadi and grossmami, and their youngest daughter, 19-year-old Lydia. The family worked together harmoniously: The grossmami fed the cane into the mouth of the press, the grossdadi hand-pumped the green juice out of an old sink and up into a rain spout where it trickled down into a horse trough filled with clay, and the daughter stirred the moisture with a long paddle until it turned a rich mocha color. Yet this division of labor wasn't rigid. When Lydia grabbed more scrap lumber to pitch into the boiler, her mother took up the paddle. Or when the grossdadi ran after his four-year-old grandson who announced in German that the sow had just delivered a litter of pigs in the barn, Lydia filled in at the pump.
``We do everything, know every job,'' Lydia explained, skimming the foam off the top of the cauldron with a wire spatula. ``See, I've been working here as long as I can remember, and Dad as far back as he knows.''
Steam clouded the shed, and Lydia, small and lithe, seemed to float from task to task in the vapors. Tied tightly under her chin was a yellow babushka that framed her face, her complexion strikingly pretty and clear with a sprinkling of freckles dotting her nose and cheeks.
On that cool afternoon, she wore a purple sweater pulled down over her long denim skirt and white ankle-length apron. She adjusted the steam jet, suctioning more juice out of the trough, up through piping above our heads, and down again into the cauldron.
``From start to finish, the whole business takes about six hours,'' the grossdadi told me, spooning a bowl full of molasses from the cooling pan. On a large blackboard above him, he had scrawled the names of seven families, mostly relatives living within a radius of two miles, who had already had their molasses prepared. ``Most have it made up just for themselves, although we sell some at the country store. Now, taste a dab of that.'' He motioned for me to stick my finger into the syrup.
`IT'S finger-licking good! Best on fried mush,'' Lydia said, waving to a group of Amish schoolboys walking up the road on their way home from the one-room school, their tin lunch buckets in hand. She pulled a cord near the boiler. Toot-toot, the steam whistle blew. The boys giggled, waving back.
Sticky and sweet, the molasses pooled on my tongue. I, too, felt part of the process. Here was a family working together as members of a larger extended unit, neighbors bonding with neighbors into a solid community.
Soon, two horse-drawn wagons piled high with sorghum made their way up the lane. On one, the canes were neatly stacked five feet high, the shafts green and reedy like bamboo, cinched with a cable and held in place with tree-branch braces stuck into the wagon sides. On the other, the canes were pitched helter-skelter onto the wagon bed, with four of five young boys splayed prostrate on top to keep the sorghum from spilling out onto the road.
But whether metal or human, the bindings got the job done, and reminded me of how most of us in the outside culture have never known this concept of family and community attachment. Even in modern agriculture, family self-sufficiency is almost gone, and it can take a sect living in the past to reconnect us to our sense of people and place.
A friend of mine in the extension service at Iowa State University said he was involved in an innovative project that would encourage farmers to work together, sharing equipment and jobs. ``Instead of each farmer building a big expensive combine, neighbors might go together and buy one, then work as a team at harvest, helping each other.''
``Imagine that!'' I said.
Lydia and I were left alone, her father again in the barn with the sow, her mother driven off in the buggy to round up some chickens on her son's farm for butchering in the morning.
``We won't work in the mill tomorrow,'' Lydia said. ``It's going to rain, and thunder makes the molasses bitter.''
So while Lydia knocked the clinkers out of the fire, I swept the foam from the cauldron. The sun set over the hill, and the sweet smell of molasses enveloped us in its mist.