Jennifer and Marge Kramer
Maasdam Sorghum Mills, Lynnville
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The Maasdam family has been producing dark, fragrant, and healthful sorghum syrup since 1926. Now in its seventh generation, the family grows sweet sorghum on the family farm in Lynnville. They also press the cane and bottle the syrup under their own and several other labels. Currently involved in the business are Jennifer Kramer, whose young sons (the seventh generation) help out a bit, and her husband, John, father-in-law and mother-in-law, Charles and Marge Kramer, along with Marge’s nephew, Craig Maasdam. They operate the cane-powered furnace, steam engine, presses, and filtration system created by Marge’s father, L.J. Maasdam.
One of the only surviving sorghum mills in Iowa, the Maasdam operation started at a time when many more Iowa farmers made syrup from home-grown cane for home use. A few other mills do exist northeast of Pella, in Kalona (Kaufmans), south of Knoxville, and perhaps in Bloomfield. Though family members made sorghum on and off for their own use prior to 1926, it was then that L.J. Maasdam, Marge’s father, officially started the business.
The busy time of year for the Maasdam sorghum mill is the fall. “The steam engine is running and alive in September,” says Marge. “It’s like a junk yard come to life.” The noise of the machinery is so loud that the family has long used steam whistles to call for the mill operator, steam operator, and cook (furnace operator).
Like most grasses, sweet sorghum is planted in the spring and harvested in the late summer and early fall, usually in September. For three to four weeks, work in the mill is nearly nonstop, and the family hires ten to twelve employees (mostly local retired people) to fill syrup jars. Everyone has a job to do, but they all know about other jobs as well, from loading and feeding in the cane, stoking the boiler, making sure that the machinery is operating smoothly, boiling, skimming, and straining the cane juice, filtering it several times, to finally bottling and sealing it for shipping. Each batch of sorghum takes about two hours and produces 60 gallons of syrup from 600 gallons of juice.
In 1970, the family started having field days for school children and their families. People come out to the farm, see where the cane is grown, how the mill works, and get to taste the syrup. They can also purchase sorghum suckers, jars of sorghum to take home, and sorghum cookbooks. Marge also gives samples and sells sorghum while a local cook demonstrates sorghum recipes at the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
Unlike molasses (made from sugar cane and dependent on near slave labor conditions and resource-depleting growing conditions in south Florida and elsewhere), sorghum is not a by-product of cane sugar manufacturing; it is the product from sorghum cane, does not need to be refrigerated, and contains high levels of iron, calcium, and potassium as well as antioxidants. Sorghum syrup can be used instead of molasses or dark corn syrup in all recipes as well as for sugar in many others (with some allowance made for reducing liquid in other ingredients).