Photo of Terry Trammell testing sugarcane syrup viscosity by Eric Hepperle (c) 2017
Photo of Terry Trammell testing sugarcane syrup viscosity (Credit: Eric Hepperle)

As a child of the 1970’s and 1980’s growing up in the United States I was in love with the many different varieties of breakfast cereal. From those with crunchy “marshmallows”, to those shaped like tiny woven wicker pillows or crispy little donuts, the main ingredient that made them awesome was undoubtedly one thing: sugar!

When I was a kid all I knew was sugar came from a bag made of paper or plastic. It could be white or brown and was sold by brands like C & H and Crystal. As I grew older and began to discover the organic food movement, I learned that sugar actually comes from “sugar cane” (also: sugarcane), but I had never actually seen any. Recently, that changed when my wife and I had the opportunity to visit a sugar cane farm in the Florida panhandle, not far from my new hometown of Geneva, Alabama.

Hi-Tek Redneck Farm, LLC is a small family-owned operation in Westville, Florida. The main owner, Terry Trammell said that he and his partners have been making delicious farm-fresh sugar cane syrup for about five years now. Although the cane they raise isn’t strictly organic, Terry said the farm is very conscientious about recycling and conserving, and they use natural processes and methods as often as possible. In fact, they raise goats which help “mow” the land and clear the field at the end of the season using sugar cane for fodder. He said the goats just love the cane and on my visit they seemed quite happy and did not appear to have any cavities.

Sugar cane – for those who are unfamiliar with it – is a tall, segmented bamboo-like stalk in the grass family that grows abundantly in the warmer climates around the Gulf of Mexico, and was a cash crop in the United States southern colonies before the Civil War. Although sugarcane did not grow well in Alabama when it was originally tried [1], neighbor states Georgia and Louisiana had great success with farming sugarcane [2][3]. Apparently, it grows well in Westville, Florida also.

Terry and Lamar, his assistant, demonstrates the entire process of turning harvested sugarcane into sugarcane syrup. It starts by turning on the powered sugarcane-mill. “It will take your arm right off if you are not paying attention”, warns Trammell. He then demonstrates how to correctly feed the cane stalks into the mill with a sort of spear-chucking stabbing motion. This type works on a similar principle as a paper-shredder or wood chipper. Two toothed rollers connected to gears rotate in opposite directions of each other and you feed your raw material (sugarcane or sorghum stalks [4]) into the rollers that then grind and squeeze the juice out, which is channeled into a bucket or bowl covered by cheesecloth to filter debris. The device is powered by a small (2-5 HP) lawnmower engine. In the old days children or animals would move a pole in a circular motion to grind the cane. One source consulted (my friend Raymond) remembers turning cane as a young-un and said each time the turn pole (called a “sweep”) would come around you’d have to remember to duck otherwise you might get your head knocked off. (Sounds like great conditioning for martial arts!)

When all the cane has been processed into juice (which you can drink and boy, is it tasty! But be careful: too much can be quite the colon cleanse for some people), the raw liquid is then taken into a giant cast-iron kettle to be boiled. As the liquid boils temperature and viscosity are measured until the correct syrupy pour is achieved. After that, the hot syrup is poured into sterilized glass bottles and left to cool. The bottles are sold in cases or individually and since Trammell doesn’t have a storefront, most order through word of mouth, but his information can also be found with a quick web search.

We had a great time on our visit to Hi-Tek Redneck Farm and I highly suggest a tour for anyone interested in learning about natural farming, or looking for a healthy, local alternative to maple syrup.

Here is my quick and easy recipe that uses sugar cane syrup to make home-made butter caramel: