Old Fashioned Sugarcane Harvest

Evensong samples a bit of cane freshly harvested from our own sugarcane patch!

It started as a thought several years ago, as we visited various historical museums in Florida and occasionally tasted the sweet syrup of sugarcane.  If it grows easily in Florida, and can be processed with fairly simple techniques, could we grow it on our little off grid homestead and make our own cane syrup?  Producing this nutrient rich sweetener would be one more step toward becoming sustainable, and something we could use to bless others.  Maybe, in time, it could become a stream of income to further accomplish Silver Oak’s goal of working fulltime with the family.  But how do you start something you know nothing about?  When an idea comes from the Lord, He works out details if we faithfully do our part.  “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” Prov. 3:6

Here is the story as it has unfolded so far…

We watched cane juice being cooked down into syrup and asked lots of questions at the Sugarcane Festival at Crowley Museum. This is when Farmer Boy was six and Little Bird was seven (they are now eight and ten).

The old fashioned cane press at Crowley, usually powered by a horse or mule.

A horse is pulling the beam here, partially hidden behind the cracker cows.

Sometimes people can power the press instead of a horse, like some of our kiddos had the privilege of doing for a short time at a museum almost three years ago.

Then they sampled the sweet watery liquid that had just been pressed.

Here is a similar cane press we saw at the historic Dudley Farm near Gainesville.

This is Dudley’s huge old kettle to boil the cane juice down into syrup. A fire is built underneath to heat it. That is seriously off the grid.

Dudley’s processing shed where the syrup was bottled.

One year my Grandpa (98 yrs old) accompanied us to Crowley, and again we watched sugarcane processing. By the way, Grandpa went to be with the Lord this year only two weeks before his 100th birthday, and we miss running things past him about the old days.

Two years ago we were at Crowley Museum for their Sugarcane Harvest Festival and met the kindly gentleman in charge of the cane syrup demonstration.  Mr. H let us sample his cane syrup, which is sweet like maple syrup but with a bit of a molasses flavor. He seemed glad to see a family from a younger generation genuinely interested in the process. We gratefully listened to his explanations about growing and processing cane the old fashioned way, and purchased a bottle of his syrup.  We were amazed to discover that he and his wife live only about ten minutes from us!

After visiting the many other artisans and re-enactors at the event, we prepared to leave for home at the end of the day and again met Mr. H.  He had about a dozen potted sugarcane plants he hadn’t sold and didn’t want to take back home, and wondered if we would take them.  We were more than happy to take them off his hands. It felt like more than just a chance meeting.

These are the cane plants Mr. H gave us…the beginning of sugarcane at our homestead.

At Mr. H’s instruction we cut the mature canes out of each pot, and divided them into pieces to propagate more cane plants.

We cut between the joints, making each piece around 18″ long.

We filled more pots with sand and composted soil, and the younger kiddos pushed the canes into the soil. Each joint in the soil can grow roots, starting a new plant! How easy is that?

Mr. H’s generous gift of 12 potted plants was immediately multiplied. Those plants grew in the pots all winter and spring until May when we finally put them into the ground (a little late, but it still worked).

One rainy Saturday afternoon while the big girls were cleaning and cooking, Silver Oak and I separated each rooted cane and planted around 85 sugarcane plants in two long rows with a trench between for irrigation. In a matter of months, with a little effort, the plants had multiplied times seven!

We finally got all those baby sugarcane plants in the ground.

Farmer Boy enjoyed being the official sugarcane waterer because it meant he got to drive our little John Deere mower pulling the trailer with the tank of water out to irrigate the plants.

Sugarcane grows in warm weather and the sugar in the canes turns sweet in the cooler months.  If there is a hard freeze, the canes will freeze and their sugars will sour if not harvested and pressed immediately.  We harvested our small plot of cane in December of last year (2013) in time to join Mr. H for his first cane pressing of the year, which is a traditional social event for the old-time Floridians.  The cane was all pressed and cooked for hours in his huge boiler.  While we waited for the syrup to be ready, we ate lunch provided by sweet Mrs. H, and enjoyed learning to know more true Southerners at the event.

When the first hard freeze was predicted earlier than expected, Mr. H called for emergency assistance with the second half of his harvest.  Silver Oak and the older girls dropped everything and went to help.

Mr. H expected to lose part of his crop because of lack of time.  But everyone worked like mad and got all the cane cut before nightfall, saving the entire harvest!  The next day it had to be pressed and boiled down.  It was a privilege to be a part of this effort, working together in community.  We are getting free education in sugarcane production and gaining new friends, and they are getting help when needed.

Mr. H has a newer cane press that is geared to be engine-powered. His dad’s old hunting truck is parked nearby to power it.

Here’s another picture of the old gray “beast” that runs it.

Mr. H (right) chats with Evensong and Silver Oak while the cane juice is boiled down into syrup in his 60 gallon cast iron pot with a propane burner underneath.

Sixty gallons of freshly squeezed cane juice will yield 6-8 gallons of cane syrup. Near the end of the process it starts rising and falling, then for about ten minutes large bubbles rise to the surface and pop as it thickens. Then it is ready to be bottled and kept without refrigeration.

This is the extent of our first year’s harvest, with the old leaves and green tops still on the canes.

Mr. H demonstrates how to cut the dead leaves off before harvesting, which is quicker and easier, so we would know for next time.

Mr. H’s homemade tool he uses to “clean” the leaves off the standing cane.

Honey Bun feeds one of our canes into Mr. H’s smaller cane press, which is the kind used with horse power. This one is mounted on an old wagon and powered by a gas motor.

A closer look…cane syrup runs out into a large pot.

Farmer Boy feeds in a cane.

Our small first harvest (2013) resulted in less than two gallons of cane juice, which we decided to drink raw for its great health benefits rather than make it into a tiny amount of syrup.

Meanwhile, the big pot of syrup was finished and we watched them strain it through cheesecloth before bottling.

And then sampled the taffy left on the sides of the empty pot.

Farmer Boy displays the green tops that were cut off our first harvest before pressing.

We planted all the tops in pots just as we had the year before, but this time it was tops from plants we grew.

By mid-April this year (2014) they were ready to be taken out to plant in the field, expanding our sugarcane patch.

This time we planted them with lots of horse manure, and by October it was thick and towered way over our heads.

Mr. H’s first harvest this season was December 5, so after Silver Oak and some of the children helped with his harvest, they came home and harvested ours.

First, Silver Oak cleans the cane (whacks off dead leaves by sliding his machete downward along each stalk)…

…then Farmer Boy cuts off the stalk (cane) at the ground.

Evensong picks up the cut canes.

Blossom finishes cleaning the canes and chops off the green tops.

Little Bird brings more canes for the big girls to process.

The cleaned canes are loaded into the truck bed to haul to Mr. H’s the next day.

They’re bad to the bone!

Totally bad! But next time maybe he’ll make a lighter wooden cane cleaner like Mr. H’s, because when the long harvesting day was over his wrist was swollen from swinging that heavy machete so long and hard.

The next morning we hauled the nearly full bed of canes and two tanks of propane to Mr. H’s for the cane grinding. Cheyenne went along to visit the place of her birth, because we got her as a pup from Mr. H earlier this year.

The motor for the smaller cane press wouldn’t cooperate this time, so we got to use the big press after Mr. H’s cane was done.

This year we pressed about 16 gallons of juice from our cane, up from less than two gallons last year! It was enough to make our own little batch of cane syrup!

While Mr. H boiled his cane juice in his huge 60 gallon pot, we boiled ours in his smaller pot over a homemade propane burner.

The thing to do while it’s boiling for hours and hours is chew on some cane, as well as listen to Mr. H’s buddies tell wild stories of their growin’ up years. Of course there was another great pot-luck lunch, true Southern style.

Even Cheyenne chewed on cane.

Our syrup is almost ready!

Our syrup is strained through cheesecloth.

Back home Silver Oak proudly bottles the cooled syrup he has been dreaming of.

Almost eight quarts of syrup!

Blossom can’t help but pose proudly with the fruit of her labors.

From the farm to the table…on some of Blossom’s delicious whole grain sourdough bread!

On Monday it was back at it, cutting the green leaves off the tops for fodder for the goats.

Little Bird and Farmer Boy push the tops into potted soil to start more new plants…the multiplication process begins again!

Sixty pots of new plants will grow in the greenhouse till spring when we plant them out, once again expanding the size of our sugarcane patch. How big will next year’s harvest be?

The Lord gives seemingly insignificant gifts as part of our lives every day.  What have we been given that He desires to generously multiply and bless us with, if we are faithful to do our small part?  The sugarcane example is a picture of the nature and character of our loving Heavenly Father.  May we be alert and faithful to “small things” He want us to do right now that will reap an abundant future harvest, either here on earth or in eternity.

Oooooh…It’s fine!

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11 thoughts on “Old Fashioned Sugarcane Harvest

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this experience. That was fascinating. And isn’t Mr. H a kind man. Sounds like very hard work. Wish you could have posted the taste of the syrup. Thanks again.


    • Yes, Mr. H is a kind man with vision for future generations. He wants to see this skill passed on, and we were ready to learn. It was a win for both of us.

      I did not like the taste of the syrup at first because I am a fan of maple syrup and this has more of a molasses flavor included. But in time I have developed a real liking for it and enjoy the mineral-rich flavors as much as maple syrup. After all, here in the south, maple syrup cannot be produced, so I may as well adjust my tastes accordingly!


    • Yeah, I know what you mean about it being above skill level. It felt that way to me too, but it has been a slow enough process that now it actually feels tangible and possible. I’d love to have you join us next time!


  2. Looks very interesting! It appears to be a lot of work but seeing it reproduce so abundantly was exciting and makes your hard work seem worth the effort and makes it so rewarding!


    • It is a lot of work, but only a few days a year. The rest of the year we do almost nothing with it, except water new plants for a little while after they are planted. So it’s not bad and it will increase as long as those critical jobs are done a few days a year. Thanks for stopping by!


  3. What an interesting process! I had never thought of making your own sweetener like that. What a blessing! Making new friends and learning together is what makes homesteading so special, the fellowship!

    Thank you for sharing it with us on the Art of Home-Making Mondays 🙂


  4. What a wonderful project! I always feel like I learn so much every time you post. How does the syrup compare, in terms of sweetness, with refined sugar? Say, 1 tsp of syrup is sweeter than a tsp of refined sugar? Less sweet?

    Also, are you going to try sugar beets as well, or stick with sugar canes?


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