Making South Fork Sorghum

Phillip Walker and his brother Bryant clean the chlorophyll from a newly built wood furnace on Walker Farm Road

The first thing to remember is it's sorghum syrup, not molasses.

Near the banks of the Little River near the Caldwell community, Phillip Walker has spent the past four years creating sweet sorghum syrup. His version is “South Fork Sorghum,”contained in bottles complete with his own logo designed by his Diane, his wife of 46 years.

The sorghum Walker cooks up on his farm with his brother Bryant and friend Mike Wright is put on hot biscuits, pancakes, bagels, or anything else that suits their pleasure.

Now what was once a hobby is about to become an event.

On Saturday, Walker will host the first annual South Fork Sorghum Festival at 4817 Walker Farm Road from 9-5. It will featured a field cutting demonstration, a sweet sorghum cane stripping demonstration, a cane milling demonstration with equipment circa 1890s. Walker says it's an invitation for residents to go back in time to demonstrate how sorghum syrup has evolved and survived since the 19th Century to the present day. Plus, there will be live bluegrass music by the band “Cuttin' Grass.”

“We going to have about 100 pumpkins in our pumpkin patch,” Walker said. “So all the kids can get a free pumpkin.”

There will also be antique tractors and equipment and collector cards. Plus, vendors including Bubba's BBQ, Handiwork Soaps & Such and Newmart Buildings.

Walker started making sorghum when his friend Calvin Davis told him about the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival in Ferrum, VA in 2014.

“They were making molasses up there and I was kind of interested in it,” Walker said. “As a little kid, my father took me to a place in Caldwell where they made sorghum syrup. I just remember the steam coming off the pan.”

In 2015, Walker returned to Ferrum for another lesson on how to create sorghum. On the two hour ride back home, Walker told Diane “We ought to be able to make that.”

“I've been studying it for the past three-and-a-half years,” Walker said. “We're getting better every time.”

Walker admits his first batches weren't very good.

“We thought it was good until we started tasting some of the real good stuff,” Walker said.

The journey to Ferrum piqued his interest. The Walkers started attending the annual meeting of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors in Pigeon Forge, TN. They traveled to Taylorsville to learn from seasoned sorghum farmers. Earlier this year, they finished building their first wood furnace, which is used to extract the final remains of chlorophyll from the canes. It's exactly how sorghum was created in the 1800s, except Walker now has the capabilities to use firebrick furnaces, whereas the originators used rock furnaces.

“Once we found the right mason, it didn't take long to build that furnace,” Walker said. “But I had to find out I didn't know what I was doing about laying block.”

It's another notch in the belt of Walker in a life that has carried him everywhere to farmers' conference meetings, in front of auctioneer microphones and behind race car steering wheels competing against drivers destined for NASCAR's top circuit. Walker once ran a Late Model Stock car at the Orange County Speedway in the late 80s, a period when it benefited from NASCAR sanctioning. He promoted OCS races during the speedway's popularity zenith. OCS once hosted Grand National races (now known as Xfinity Series) that featured Dale Earnhardt Sr and Rusty Wallace, to name a few. As for his own car, Walker's primary sponsor was radio station WDCG, better known as G105 when Milli Vanilli, Paula Abdul and En Vogue were...well, en vogue.

In addition to farming, Walker is the owner of Carolina Collector Auto Fest and formerly served as a track operations manager for Andretti Sports Marketing, where he became acquaintances with Mario Andretti.

For now, Walker is focused on making the sweetest sorghum he possibly can and spreading the word about it.

“We start planting towards the first of June,” Walker said. “Then we harvest it in late September or early October. We strip the cane and then we cut it and let it dry for about two weeks. The moisture evaporates out of the stalk. It makes it cook a lot better.”