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Sweet tradition

Mailes family preserves the old-fashioned art of making sorghum syrup

Woodfire smoke settles across the cool, damp air of an early October morning as guests begin to gather at the Mailes farm near Seneca, Mo. Today is the family’s annual sorghum festival, a 34-year tradition with a rich and flavorful heritage.

The event is part homecoming, part history lesson and all fun for the more than 100 relatives, friends and neighbors who gather here each year to take part in the old-fashioned custom of making sorghum syrup. The long, labor-intensive process is tailor-made for community camaraderie, and the action-packed day includes lunch, live music and lots of fellowship interspersed with the task at hand.

“There just aren’t enough things like this anymore, get-togethers that give you a chance to visit with people and take part in something meaningful,” said neighbor Trent Wilson, who was accompanied by his 9-year-old son, Creek. “Seneca is a really special town, and sorghum day is something we look forward to all year.”

Presiding over the activities is 88-year-old Maurice Mailes, who hosts the event with his wife, Janice. Preserving this nostalgic craft befits the patriarch’s penchant for collecting antiques, especially vintage items related to farming and rural life. The idea took shape after Maurice acquired an old sorghum press from Janice’s family, and then added a firebox and cooking pan from a friend and former neighbor, Cecil Humburg. For years, Cecil, who has since passed away, would come over from neighboring Oklahoma to help the family cook sorghum syrup.

From the start, the entire Mailes family has participated in the event in one way or another, including the couple’s three children and their spouses—son Kevin and wife Sherri, son Cory and wife Jo, and daughter Karla Boatright and husband Bruce—plus seven grandchildren and now eight great-grandchildren.

“We do this mainly for Grandpa. He loves it, and it keeps him happy,” said grandson Monty Mailes as he stoked the fire under the stainless-steel pan. “If nothing else, it gets everybody together in one place to visit, and there are people we don’t see but once a year on this day. I’m 21 now, and I’ve been doing this my whole life. I guess we’ll just keep doing it as long as we can.”

In fact, in a forward-looking gesture, granddaughter Taylor Roark pointed out that the family installed a permanent concrete pad this year to replace the aging wooden platform where the music and dancing usually take place.

“My Pawpaw told my Memaw, ‘Well, I guess the kids are planning on doing it after we’re gone because they’re pouring concrete,’” Taylor said. “It was the sweetest thing.”

The day starts in the field, where a host of volunteers, including local FFA members, hand-harvest the sweet sorghum cane. Unlike the grain-cultivated variety, this type of sorghum is grown specifically for its tall, robust stalks with high sugar content. Wielding machetes, the workers methodically work their way through the one-acre patch, chopping the cane near the ground, whacking off the seed head and leaves, and stacking the stripped stalks in truck beds.

From there, the cane is piled near the antique sorghum press, which is powered by a 1949 Allis Chalmers G model tractor driven in tight circles by the Mailes’ neighbor, Frank Marshall. The stalks are pushed through the press, squeezing out bright-green juice that runs down a trough, through a mesh screen and into a large collection barrel.

Even the work is enjoyable—or at least, that’s the verdict of 11-year-old Nathan Lasiter, who spent most of the morning feeding the press with help from his younger brother, Corbin.

“I could hardly sleep last night, I was so excited,” Nathan said. “Besides the Fourth of July, Sorghum Fest is my favorite day of the year. I love getting to come here and work!”

After the first round of workers, folks continue to trickle in throughout the morning, carrying lawn chairs and potluck dishes for the communal meal, sharing enthusiastic greetings and warm hugs, and wandering through Maurice’s various collections of antique cars, farm equipment and gadgets displayed on the property and stored in barns.

“We don’t advertise this, but everybody seems to know when we’re making sorghum,” Cory said. “You see some new ones about every year but a lot of the main ones are the same— friends, family, neighbors, FFA kids, people from church. Word gets around. We’ve had several hundred people here before.”

At noon, activity pauses for lunch, with lines already forming along both sides of the food-laden row of tables. In reverence to God and country, the meal is prefaced by a blessing and children-led Pledge of Allegiance.

Then the tractor fires up again, the sorghum press starts rolling and conversations resume.

Once the barrel is about three-fourths full, the juice is poured into the cooking pan and begins the long, hot transformation into syrup. It takes roughly 10 gallons of raw sorghum juice for every 1 gallon of syrup, often mistakenly called “sorghum molasses.” The terms are not interchangeable, however. Molasses is actually a byproduct of processing sugar cane into crystallized sugar whereas sorghum cane only yields syrup, no matter how long it’s boiled (see accompanying story on page 23).

Screen Shot 2023 10 31 at 4.57.16 PMFor several hours, the liquid bubbles and boils in the pan over a constant high heat as family and friends take turns stirring the juice with wooden paddles and skimming the impurities from the top with a perforated scoop. The sloping pan is divided into a series of connected baffles, allowing the juice to gradually move downhill through the channels as it cooks and thickens. Eventually, the water evaporates and the sugary liquid renders into syrup.

This is where the process becomes art. Cook the juice too long, and the syrup will become thick, clumpy and strong-tasting. If it’s not cooked enough, the end product will still be green, thin and bitter. Ideally, sorghum syrup should be an amber color and the consistency of honey.

“The old neighbor who started doing this with dad was the main one who always cooked,” Cory said. “After he died, we didn’t do this for a few years and then started back. But since he’d always done the cooking, we had to kind of figure it out on our own.”

Guests who stay to the end can try fresh-from-the-pan syrup over hot, buttered biscuits or take home a jar or two for later. Like its molasses cousin, sorghum syrup can be used as an alternative sweetener or as an ingredient in baked goods such as pies, cakes and cookies (see the Mailes family’s favorite recipe for Sorghum Sugar Cookies at left).

Not everyone is a fan of the taste—even members of the Mailes family will admit that—but this day is not about syrup. Not really. Strengthening friendships, building community, making memories and preserving rural heritage are the true rewards. As for how long this sweet tradition will continue, Maurice just flashes a mischievous grin.

“I guess you’d say I’m kind of like a Biblical character,” he said. “I’m going to raise ‘cane’ as long as I’m ‘able’.”

Sorghum or molasses? They aren’t the same.
Though molasses and sorghum syrup have similar uses and are often used interchangeably in conversation and recipes, they are distinctly different substances.
Molasses is the result of extracting sugar from sugar cane. Much like the process of making sorghum syrup, the sugar cane is stripped and then crushed to extract the juice, which is then boiled. As the juice is boiled, sugar crystals are formed, and the thick, brown liquid left is the molasses.
That’s where the main difference lies. Sorghum juice just becomes a thicker syrup the longer it’s boiled rather than crystallizing. As such, sorghum “molasses” is wrong terminology. It’s sorghum “syrup.”
When it comes to taste, both molasses and sorghum syrup share common notes of caramel, but the similarity ends there. Molasses is sweeter than sorghum, with a deep, robust and sometimes bitter taste. Meanwhile, sorghum syrup has a complex flavor profile that’s earthy, nutty and mildly sweet with rich, savory undertones.
There are agronomic differences, too. Sweet sorghum has the ability to grow in colder climates than sugar cane, which helps explain why its syrup, rather than molasses, would have historically been the alternative sweetener of choice for geographies outside the Deep South.

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Secrets to share

Crop scientist outlines top six factors that impact soybean yield

The five-soybean pod. For many growers, it’s as mythical as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Not even seasoned crop scientist Dr. Fred Below of the University of Illinois has seen one of these elusive occurrences firsthand, even as he researches ways to help growers maximize production through better management.

“The typical number of seeds per pod is three; under stress you might see two or even one,” Below said. “But if you have the right growing conditions, the right genetics and the right management, you can get four or even five. I hate to admit it. I’ve never found a five-bean pod, even though I’ve looked like crazy.”

Three, four, five—why should growers care about how many soybeans are in each pod? It’s simple, Below said. Yield.

“Take the number of pods per plant and multiply it by the number of seeds per pod, and that gives you the seed number,” he explained. “And seed number is directly associated with yield. Add one more pod per plant, and you’ll get 2 more bushels per acre.”

Increasing that number is the focus of Below’s most recent research into factors that have the biggest impact on soybean yield. The result is the “Six Secrets to Soybean Success,” which he shared in August with growers at a presentation sponsored by MFA and Bayer Crop Science.

The soybean studies are a follow-up to Below’s popular “Seven Wonders of Corn Yield” treatise, which identified factors that could lead to a 300-bushels-per-acre crop. Soybeans tend to get less attention than corn when it comes to management strategies, Below said, even though U.S. acreage planted to soybeans grew more than 13% in the last two decades, from 73.7 million acres in 2003 to 83.5 million acres in 2023. Yields have also been on the rise, increasing from 38 bushels per acre to just under 50 bushels in 2022, largely based on seed genetics.

“Production practices for soybeans have not kept up with genetic improvements for yield, pest resistance and stress tolerance,” he said. “There is a huge opportunity to increase soybean yield by changing the way we manage the crop.”

Below and his fellow researchers at the university’s Crop Physiology Laboratory define “soybean success” as achieving yields of 80 bushels per acre. Here are the not-so-secret factors contributing to that goal, listed in order of impact on yield: 
1. Weather — 30+ bushels
2. Variety — 30 bushels
3. Row spacing — 7 bushels
4. Foliar protection — 6 bushels
5. Fertility — 5 bushels
6. Seed treatment — 2 bushels

Below emphasized that while each factor must be optimized to achieve top yields, all of them must work together in a holistic approach. They are also dependent on crucial prerequisites, such as adequate soil drainage, season-long weed control and proper soil pH.

1: Weather
The first “secret,” of course, isn’t really a secret at all. Weather dictates much of the success of any crop, and is, unfortunately, the factor growers have no control over, Below said. They can, however, determine the planting date, which is also somewhat governed by the weather.

“Planting date is important, and, yes, the weather plays a huge role in that decision,” he said. “But let’s say we have a choice. Plant soybeans early. The canopy closes faster, the plants put on more nodes, and that equates to more yields. In Illinois, about 30% of the soybeans went in the ground ahead of corn this year.

It’ll be more next year. This is one way to have some control over the weather.”

2: Variety
In the first iteration of Below’s studies in 2012, fertility was ranked as the second-most important factor impacting soybean yield. However, subsequent research now indicates that variety selection is No. 2, falling just below weather.

“When we initially developed this list, we didn’t have sufficient data to put an average value on each secret,” Below said. “As we’ve continued to evaluate this concept, we’ve seen that genetics ranks right behind weather as having the biggest influence on yield. Every year, I watch farmers agonize over what corn hybrid they’re going to grow, and then they turn around and buy any old soybean. Big mistake. Variety is by far the most important decision you make, and most growers are not giving it enough attention.”

Growers should select seed that is high-yielding, has the necessary agronomic and defensive packages and is adapted to the field and soil where they will plant it, Below said. However, he added, bear in mind that all varieties are not created equal. In fact, citing trials from 2021, Below pointed out that soybean varieties of the same maturity group ranged in yield by as much as 30 bushels per acre when grown at the same location.

“Usually, it’s the variety with the fullest relative maturity that gives the highest yield,” he said. “Remember, too, that soybean varieties differ in their response to fertility and foliar protection, so if using a high-management approach, choose an offensive variety that is known to respond.”

3: Row Spacing 
In the university’s studies, narrower rows typically out-yielded wider rows (20-inch vs. 30-inch). Narrow-row soybeans were also more responsive when adding intensive management factors. This approach can be a tradeoff, Below cautioned, because narrow rows can promote more disease pressure due to reduced air circulation.

“Using the same population of plants but narrowing the rows helps close the canopy faster,” Below explained. “Again, that promotes more nodes and more yield. If you have a problem with a disease like white mold, however, a narrow row isn’t the way to go.”
Optimum row spacing not only interacts strongly with the weather but also the population and the planting date.

“If you plant early, row spacing doesn’t matter. You’ve got plenty of time for the canopy to close,” Below said. “Plant late, and narrow rows are going to be better than 30s. It really is a systems approach, and row spacing is one of those tools. If you want to intensively manage your soybeans, narrow-row spacing will give you the most bang for your buck.”

4: Foliar Protection
Including both fungicides and insecticides as “foliar protection” is success secret No. 4. Below said the goal is to preserve the photosynthetic activity of leaves throughout pod fill, which is critical to overall yield.

“If you put fungicide on, you’re crazy if you don’t put insecticide with it,” Below said. “This is an absolute case of one plus one equals three. There is clearly a synergy between them. Not only do you see less damage from disease and insects, but you also keep the leaves greener longer, converting sunlight into more yield.”

When it comes to foliar protection, timing is key, he added.

“Most yield—60%—comes from the nodes in the middle of the plant,” Below said. “When you spray a fungicide-insecticide combination at R3, you’re protecting nodes 7 to 13, where more than half of your yield comes from. That’s why foliar protection is so important.”

5: Fertility
In another case of synergy, foliar protection and fertility work hand in hand to give growers the full value of both types of inputs, Below said, continuing to No. 5 on the list. But fertility is also one area that growers tend to neglect, mistakenly assuming that nutrient needs are less intense than they really are.

“Soybeans use a lot of nutrients,” Below said, displaying a chart showing the fertility needed to produce 80-bushel yields: 327 pounds of nitrogen, 227 pounds of potassium, 57 pounds of phosphorus, 23 pounds of sulfur, 6.4 ounces of zinc and 6.1 ounces of boron per acre.

Perhaps the biggest misconception is the need for nitrogen, he added. Despite being a nitrogen-fixing legume, soybeans draw more N out of the soil than they put back in. The root nodules, where bacteria make nitrogen in a symbiotic relationship with the soybean plant, only satisfy half the crop’s nitrogen requirement of 4 to 5 pounds for each bushel of beans produced.

“If I teach you anything here today, it’s that soybean removes more nitrogen than it fixes,” Below said. “Soybean has a very high nitrogen requirement, and it only gets about half of its nitrogen from the nodules. The rest must come from fertilizer.”

6: Seed Treatment
Recognizing that yield potential is greatest on the day seeds are planted, growers can promote enhanced early-season emergence and vigor, especially in stressful environments, with seed treatments. As the No. 6 soybean secret, this factor accounted for about 2 bushels of yield in Below’s studies.

“Naked seeds don’t emerge and grow as well as treated seeds,” Below said. “The right seed treatment can significantly contribute to every crop development stage, from emergence to harvest. If you plant early, which I’m telling you should be done, it’s even more important. Those treatments will protect the seed and seedlings from disease and pests, getting them out of the danger zone faster and setting the crop up for success.”

Currently, Below and his team are extending their studies of seed treatments to include the newer biological products, which he described as “the biggest area of research we have right now.”

In summarizing his discussion, Below reminded the audience that purposefully managing soybeans to optimize each of these six factors could potentially add up to yields of 80 bushels per acre—or more.

“Focus on the ones at the top that have the biggest impact first,” he said. “And remember these things interact with each other. If one of these is not optimized, you’ll grow less. Guaranteed. That’s what makes this so hard. To grow more than 80-bushel soybeans, you have to optimize the prerequisites, each of the secrets and their positive interactions.”

To read more details about Below’s previous and ongoing studies, visit the University of Illinois Crop Physiology Laboratory website at

CLICK HERE to read more from this November Today's Farmer Magazine.

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Public-private partnerships— a winning combination

Two MDC programs offer landowners incentives while increasing public access, hunting opportunities and improving wildlife habitats

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has two programs that provide landowners, farmers and hunters with a win-win situation.
The first is the Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program (MRAP) which is a voluntary program that compensates landowners for opening their private property to the public for outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing. The second is the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) which is designed to assist Missouri landowners in reaching deer management goals for their properties.

MDC’s private land programs supervisor, Lisa Potter, serves as the MRAP manager. She explained that landowners can earn $15 to $25 per acre for each year of participation and that there are six different access options landowners can choose from when enrolling. The options are youth hunting and fishing; all access hunting and fishing; archery hunting; fishing; small game and turkey hunting; and wildlife viewing.

“This diverse list of access options allows landowners to enroll in an access type that best matches their comfort level and provides unique outdoor recreation opportunities to the public,” said Potter, adding that these private lands are open to public foot traffic only. “For example, if a landowner is interested in deer hunting but also wants to enroll their property into MRAP, the acreage can be enrolled into the small game and turkey access. The public can only pursue turkey and small game species, while the landowner can continue to hunt deer on their lands.”

With this program, the public now has additional lands for outdoor recreation, often closer to home. One of the objectives of MRAP is to afford more outdoor opportunities to youth under the age of 16.

“Currently, there are several youth-only properties enrolled that provide sites with high-quality habitat and less competition with other hunters and anglers,” Potter said. “MRAP properties can also increase economic development for nearby towns by bringing both Missouri and out-of-state outdoor recreationists into the area.”

Another benefit of MRAP is the incentive to maintain existing habitat and help create additional quality wildlife habitat.
“We provide up to 90% cost-share and annual payment incentives to MRAP landowners for voluntarily choosing to complete habitat work on their properties,” Potter explained. “For a property to be eligible for enrollment, at least 20% of the offered acres must be considered quality wildlife habitat. The average amount of quality wildlife habitat on MRAP properties is greater than 60% of the enrolled acres, far exceeding the minimum program requirements.”

MRAP was piloted in northeast Missouri by MDC in 2016 and was fully funded in 2018 through the USDA Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. Since its inception, the program has grown to more than 15,000 acres enrolled with properties distributed across the state.
MFA Natural Resources Conservation Specialist Emily Beck said she was surprised by the number of farms signed up near her farm in northern Missouri, adding that, “Having an increase in foot traffic can be worrisome so MDC covers that with liability protection with the Missouri Recreational Use Immunity Statutes. This is only offered if you do not have any outside hunting leases or charge extra fees to enter your land.”

The Deer Management Assistance Program was launched in seven Missouri counties in 2019 and now is available throughout the state.
“The program addresses a broad suite of deer management goals including reducing damage caused by deer to agriculture, forest or other plant communities; improving the health and quality of the deer herd by balancing deer numbers; plus creating a more balanced female-to-male ratio,” said Kevyn Wiskirchen, MDC’s private lands deer biologist and DMAP administrator.

Jim Starr, a Boone County timber, row-crop and cattle farmer, is participating in the DMAP program to help reduce deer pressure on his property in a sustainable way.

“My main business is a sawmill, and I harvest timber off our farm,” said Starr, who has approximately 400 acres of forest. “The deer can really harm oak and hickory tree regeneration by stripping leaves, shoots and bark of the trees. The damage to the trees was really affecting the growth.”

When his family first moved to the farm, Starr said he rarely saw a deer. “Now there are about 100-125 deer per square mile. It should be about 25-30. You know that the population is really out of hand when you see all the dead deer on the side of the road,” he said. “I was looking at getting a nuisance permit when Adam Doerhoff (Boone County MDC agent) told me about DMAP. With DMAP hunting permits, we can now harvest the deer meat and not have it go to waste.”

Deer damage authorizations allow landowners to remove deer during the summer when high temperatures make it more difficult to utilize the venison. However, DMAP permits are used to harvest deer during the regular hunting season, thus providing landowners with another tool to address deer damage while making it much easier to utilize the meat from the deer that are removed.

Starr gives the DMAP tags to a few hunters and family members who are able to use the meat. He has also donated deer harvested from his property to Missouri’s Share the Harvest program, which helps hunters provide surplus venison for the hunger-relief needs. Share the Harvest is administered by the Conservation Federation of Missouri and MDC.

With DMAP hunting permits, farmers are able to keep the deer population lower on their lands, which benefits the landowners and their crops as well as the deer.

“In the first year, we harvested about 25 deer. I think 22 were mature females,” Starr said. “That’s really what you want.” He plans to continue enrolling in DMAP each year to help address his concerns with deer pressure.

Just down the road from Starr’s farm is the Missouri Soybean Association’s Bay Farm Research Facility. Brady Lichenberg, conservation programs manager for the association, said that the research facility enrolled in DMAP this year.

“We were interested in participating because of the extensive deer damage we have observed,” Lichenberg said. “Having the opportunity for increased available antlerless firearms deer permits will be key to reducing deer pressure on our soybean research plots.”

He added that the enrollment process was very simple. “I contacted our local conservation agent and gave him some basic information. All I had to do was submit some maps of the farms that we were enrolling and some information on the hunters who will have tags allocated to them. The process was very straightforward, and thus far it has been headache-free.”

Landowners with large acreage or those with above-average deer densities on their property may need additional harvest opportunities to effectively manage the local deer population, Wiskirchen said.

“There are other options that can help landowners reduce deer damage, such as being authorized by an MDC conservation agent to remove deer during the growing season,” Wiskirchen said. “However, DMAP offers the advantage of allowing landowners to remove deer during the hunting season when the weather is cooler and when it is generally easier to enlist the help of other hunters to help them meet their goal.”

For more information on DMAP, visit

To view an interactive map and description of MRAP properties go to:
Interested landowners can find the MRAP application form at

Enrollment opportunities are offered on a continuous basis.

CLICK HERE to read more from this November Today's Farmer Magazine.

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