A sweet family tradition that stuck for over 75 years

by | May 29, 2020

Every Friday on social media, we post a Farm Feature Friday showcasing one of our dedicated North Carolina farmers. Audra and Rick Ellis, of Ellis Farms, is one of those farmers. The #FarmFeatureFriday campaign will run for an entire year on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Be sure to tune in each Friday afternoon on social and help show your support for our local farmers!

Some people buy a car or a puppy when they need a mid-life change. Rick Ellis, however, re-established a farm. Over 75 years ago, the Ellis Family tradition of making sorghum molasses began. The farm was originally started by Hubert Ellis in the 1930’s with corn, melons, potatoes and sorghum. However, when farming took a downturn in the 80s, Hubert was forced to turn to logging to make ends meet.

Although Rick grew up around farming, it wasn’t until later in life that he discovered a true passion for it. “In 2012, Rick got a wild hair and decided he wanted to start up the farm again,” Rick’s wife Audra said, “so we bought a few chickens, pigs, goats and planted sorghum.” Sorghum is unique to the Ellis family not only because molasses has been a tradition for many years, but also because they are one of the last families in Lincoln county to make it the old-fashioned way, over a wood-burning stove.

The sorghum grown on Ellis farm is not grain sorghum, or Milo, like most people are used to, it’s sweet sorghum. There is no sugar cane involved, it’s shelf-stable and naturally sweet. “Our sorghum, planted in May to June and harvested in September to October, is juicier than regular grain sorghum,” Audra said, “we squeeze and cook what comes out of each stalk using a 100-year-old mill that Rick’s grandfather had.”

Although sorghum is grown like most other row crops, harvest is tough for the Ellis’ because it is a lot of physical labor and you never know what the yield will be until after harvest. Since the family does not use herbicides, the sorghum crop has to be cultivated about three times with nitrogen to control weeds during the spring and early summer. “Once cultivating is finished it’s just a watch and wait kind of thing until harvest,” Audra said. Harvest usually starts in September by stripping the fodder, which Audra says is the removing of the leaves from the stalk by hand. Once all the leaves are stripped and stalks cut down, the juice is pressed out of the stalks in their Southern Plow Company cane mill, the second mill purchased on the farm in the 40s. “The juice is allowed to settle for about an hour and then transferred into a 120-gallon boiler where it is cooked down to the sweet syrup we call molasses,” Audra explained, “in total, the cooking process takes around 8 hours.”

Although harvest is tough due to the physical labor and uncertain nature of the crop, knowing that they have people who come back year after year, anticipating their molasses, keeps them going. “We have people literally waiting on the first jar of sorghum molasses each year,” Audra said, ” like our neighbor Larry. He will send his wife to Bojangles for a box of biscuits while he sits by the mill and waits for us to fill up his jars with hot-off-the-press molasses.” While Rick and their two children can eat it straight out of the jar, Audra prefers to use it in baking cookies or as an ingredient in sauces and marinades.

In addition to sorghum molasses, Rick and Audra produce eggs and pork as well as breed dairy goats. Their products can be found at Guernsey Girl Creamery, Burton General Store or on-site at their farm. “The effort and pride that goes into our products are what makes them special,” Audra says. It is a family tradition of things grown and raised with a passion and love for farming.

With both Rick and Audra currently working full-time jobs in addition to the farm, they hopefully look to a future of full-time farming after retirement. “I have six more years,” Audra said, “and the hope is that once we both retire we can focus all our efforts on the farm.” In the future, they would love to produce meat chickens and build an on-site farm store to sell their products.