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An Ancient Grain Takes Root in Honomu

December 19, 2017, 8:56 AM HST (Updated December 19, 2017, 8:56 AM)
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    I find the most interesting things at yard sales. However, it wasn’t vintage Pyrex, or bargain paperback books that caught my attention, recently. It was a table full of delectable treats. Farmer Ben Christensen was on-hand to dole out the samples and I was happy to try them.

    The tiny desserts (tarts, cheesecakes and muffins) were delicious—not too sweet, but just right for my tastes. What fascinated me, though, was that they were baked using sorghum flour, a grain not normally grown in the tiny Hawai‘i island town of Honomu.

    In fact, Christensen is darned far away from the “Sorghum Belt” of the U.S., which runs from South Dakota to Southern Texas. Grown in the belt are grain sorghum, sweet sorghum, livestock sorghum and biomass sorghum. Also known as “milo,” sorghum is staging a comeback.

    Christensen has an interest in his family’s overseas business, but considers farming to be his vocation. He is ahead of the curve in his experimentation with grains and may have hit upon a winner on his Akaka Falls farm.

    Naturally gluten-free, sorghum is a versatile ancient grain. I remember my father using it in animal feed, but it can be milled into flour or boiled into syrup—even made into ethanol.

    At your next potluck, you may find a side dish of sorghum, similar to quinoa. It’s a hardy plant, and will grow in conditions that are less than ideal.

    I asked Christensen what drives him to experiment with grains. A religious man, he replied, “I need to be a good steward of God’s creation… I cringe at how big farming has changed the way people view food and the responsible production thereof. Another reason is simply the reality that most of us Americans have become so disconnected with farming and how the bulk of our life-sustaining diet is actually grown and processed. I also love to see the germination of a tiny seed, and with it, the promise of a miraculous harvest.”

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    I found popped sorghum in commercially-made snacks at area health food stores. When I babysat recently, the baby and I munched on some “Bitty Bites,” which were very tasty and contained—you guessed it—sorghum.

    “It looks a lot like corn,” Christensen told me. I was surprised by the similarity. It grows into high stalks with glossy foliage, but the similarity ends when it blossoms into a pretty red flower instead of hiding ears of corn. Those berries contain starch.

    Why did Christensen experiment with sorghum? He cites its versatility. He has tried several grain crops, so he is no stranger to them.

    “Another reason for growing sorghum is just how efficiently the plant uses water and nutrients,” he said. “It also produces a lot of grain per stalk, and it only takes about four healthy grain heads to yield a cup of flour.”

    The flour is naturally a bit sweet, which makes it interesting for use in baking.

    Christensen is big on sustainability and cited the fact that the islands still import 90% of its food, a fact frequently shared with me by local farmers.

    Again, here are the sorghum possibilities: Animal feed, flour, syrup, grains and ethanol.

    “The flour doubles in size and it’s an easy grain to thresh,” he shared.

    After the sorghum flowers, the grain sets (“milk stage”). The challenge with living in a tropical climate is getting it dry enough to thresh. For now, threshing is a labor of love, as he uses a DIY bucket-and-drill combination, rather than a commercially made thresher. He is looking toward the future for a more efficient method of threshing larger amounts of grain.

    March through June, Christensen shared, seems to be the ideal time for planting. It takes about 75 days from late spring for grain sorghum.

    “I could plant all year,” Christensen said, “but warmer weather and longer days are best, since a larger plant means more grain for your labor.”

    He is mindful of the rain, as the grain lasts about two weeks in the field at its most mature state.

    To make the syrup, the juice from the stalks must be boiled until thickened. In the south, this is done over a wood fire, which gives it its trademark smoky quality.

    “I made some syrup with the dual-purpose, giant sorghum and it tastes amazing,” he relayed. “And I really want to experiment with popped sorghum granola using the syrup.”

    Ben Christensen’s island-grown sorghum. PC: Ben Christensen

    Christensen eventually hopes to sell his whole grain to local stores, restaurants and cafés.

    Ben Christensen’s island-grown sorghum. PC: Marla Walters

    Ben Christensen’s island-grown sorghum. PC: Ben Christensen

    Ben Christensen’s island-grown sorghum. PC: Ben Christensen

    Marla Walters
    Marla Walters is a transplant from Humboldt County, California. She has a multitude of writing experience as a Wise Bread staff writer, cookbook editor, and blogger. She has also written for The Purple Fig and Molly Green.
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