DRIVING THROUGH the North Georgia mountains during fall is a magical time. The trees begin to turn from green to vibrant, fiery hues and tractors appear on the farms dotting the countryside. Whether farmers are working in the trees to pick delicious red apples, carrying buckets of grapes for stomping into liquids that will become wine, or harvesting golden stalks of corn, harvest season is a busy one. But not all of the stalks coming down are corn. Some of those fields topped with golden and brown tassels are sorghum. And it was once so abundant in the mountains that hundreds of sorghum farmers existed for generations. In fact, in Union, Towns, Lumpkin and White Counties, more than two dozen sorghum mills existed to produce syrup. Today, two remain.
Still, for the 53rd year, Blairsville annual Sorghum Festival returns to celebrate the crop’s sweet reward and remind attendees of ancestral traditions that helped form and shape the communities of North Georgia.
For more than 4,000 years, sorghum has been a main crop in regions around the world. Grown in the dry climates found in Africa, it’s often referred to as Guinea Corn because of its popularity in the West African country of the same name. Records have found it grown in India in 700 BC, China in the 13th century, and in the U.S. in the 17th century. Even our Founding Fathers used sorghum, with the first record written by Benjamin Franklin, who touted its use to make brooms.
As an African grain, slaves brought the seeds to the New World. Although the wealthier plantations kept to tobacco, Southern farmers found the golden crop was sturdier than corn, espe cially in the Appalachain Mountains. Along the way to modern day, Southerners extolled syrup from the cane of the corn-like grain, with President Abraham Lincoln gifted some of the thick molasses during his train tour of the nation.
“It’s a sweetener but it’s healthier than any other sugar out there,” says Terry Hughes, the owner of one of the two remaining sorghum syrup producers in the North Georgia mountains. “It’s especially high in antioxidants.”
To make the syrup, the plant is harvested, the stalks are crushed and heated, and the green extracted in the process becomes a natural syrup used on breakfast foods, barbecue, salads and more. And since 1954, Young Harris’ Hughes family has been making its award-winning Southern sweetness.
“My dad began growing sorghum in 1946 and eight years later, he and my brother began their own processing mill, created their own label and began to sell sorghum syrup. I took over the mill in 1998 but I grew up working on the farm; I’ve always been doing it,” says Hughes.
These foothills of the Appalachian Mountains have been a hotbed for sorghum growth since the 1850s when a one-horse wagon made its way through Ellijay. Its driver promised the cane from the seeds he was hawking would provide a liquid sugar. Skeptical farmers gave it a shot, discovering the crops grew quickly and were eventually more valuable than corn and even its liquid moonshine. At one point in the area’s past, every community in the counties had a sorghum mill to produce the syrup.
“When my dad was running the production, Union County sorghum growers were making 75,000 to 100,000 gallons of sorghum syrup every year. Just in Union County. Now, I produce about 3,000 gallons,” says Hughes. “It was a way of life when I was a kid. There were 20 to 30 sorghum mills and now we are down to two. Some farms grow sorghum with their other crops but they aren’t turning it into syrup.” The numbers may be dwindling but sorghum in this neck of the woods is still an artform crop—as well as the third most popular cereal grain in the country. Last year, the winner of the North American Sweet Sorghum Syrup contest was none other than Hughes, who beat out 42 other entries from 11 states and Canada in the contest organized by the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association. There may be only 300 members in the association but its majority of farmers live in Appalachia.
“I have three children and I’m not sure they’ll keep the mill going. They’ll have to start working on the farm,” he laughs.
Two Sweet Weekends
Although it’s not the largest festival in North Georgia, the intimate Blairsville Sorghum
Festival is an important one as it celebrates and promotes the region’s agricultural past and present. Last year, 15,000 people attended the festival hosted by the Blairsville Sorghum Syrup Makers and Enotah CASA Inc. Before the pandemic and for 50 years, the Jaycees co-hosted the event but when Covid forced the event’s cancelation, it and the syrup makers almost didn’t bring the event back. As the largest fundraiser for nonprofits in the area, Enotah CASA swooped in, hoping to raise funds for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for children in foster care and to continue bringing festivalgoers to the area.
“This event is so important to the community,” says Jenny Mahan of Enotah CASA. “The Sorghum Festival continues our local traditions and supports our local restaurants, organizations and businesses. It’s a real boost to our area.”
Once again, over two weekends this October, visitors can enjoy biscuits and syrup while watching it being made, along with a variety of other old-fashioned festival fun, such as blacksmithing, wood art and moonshining demonstrations. A parade, square dance, daily biscuit eating contests, the Dahlonega Action Dogs, and a litany of live performers will be on hand to entertain attendees. Expect popular acts to make a return, including the Woody Gap Band of Steel, Paradise 56, Southern Vantage and headliner Tommy Townsend (who also creates some serious moonshine at Grandaddy Mimms.)
Nearly 100 vendors offering glass and pottery, clothing, baskets, crafts, woodcrafts and metals, jewelry, candles and soaps and more sweets and goodies like honey, nuts and baked goods will be featured at this year’s festival, along with mountain games like hatchet throwing, pole climbing and log sawing.
But the real star will be sorghum syrup. “This event is hosted at Meeks Park, which is county-owned yet it’s so big the county has permanent structures built for cooking the sorghum syrup,” says Mahan. “That’s how important sorghum is.”
Unfortunately, you won’t find Hughes at the festival. “That’s like inviting a chef into your restaurant,” he says with a chuckle. In order to sample his award-winning sorghum, head over to the Hughes Sorghum Syrup Mill. “I start harvesting around the first of September and I’ll be harvesting and processing two or three days each week through October, maybe even early November. We don’t have any events or food to go with syrup on the farm but the festival is good to us as people will drop by and buy our sorghum. Anyone is welcome to visit.” Hughes adds the most important reason he supports the Sorghum Festival is that it’s teaching young people about the rich local history of sorghum syrup. And that, hopefully, will help the region’s sorghum mills thrive for years to come.
53RD ANNUAL BLAIRSVILLE SORGHUM FESTIVAL
October 8 – 9 and 15 – 16; Meeks Park 490 Meeks Park Rd., Blairsville
9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; $5 adults; 12 and under free
HUGHES SORGHUM SYRUP MILL
2134 Olin Hughes Rd., Young Harris; 706-400-8420