By Chris Aldridge, Kentucky Proud Connection
Danny Townsend can now distinguish his agriculture products at the point of sale as having been locally grown by a veteran thanks to a new Kentucky Department of Agriculture program.
Homegrown by Heroes allows farmers such as Townsend, who served in the Vietnam War, to use a special logo the KDA hopes will give consumers an extra incentive to make a purchase to support a veteran farmer.
"I'm glad they're doing something for veterans," said Townsend, who produces Townsend's Sweet Sorghum in Jeffersonville, Ky.
Townsend is the fifth generation of his family to work the same fields where sweet sorghum has been grown and made since the late 1800s. Townsend Sorghum Mill was a member of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's marketing program even before it became known as Kentucky Proud.
"I love it," he said of Kentucky Proud. "Just about every state's got a program. Everybody I know is proud of Kentucky, where they're from. I'm always proud of Kentucky stuff."
Decades of practice have made Townsend's Sweet Sorghum one of the nation's best brands. The National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association (NSSPPA), of which Townsend is a charter member, has crowned his sorghum among the top two brands in the nation four times in the past 12 years. It was the national champion back to back in 2005-06 and runner-up last year and in 2001.
"The competition is really, really tight," said Townsend, who competed in 2012 against 50 entrants from throughout the nation.
Thanks to a heated bottling tank, Townsend's award-winning sorghum is always on tap and for sale all year round in his mill at 11620 Main St. in Jeffersonville.
Townsend also grows 15 acres of produce, which he sells at a farm market building on his farm. When they're in season, he sells broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupes, cauliflower, green beans, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, summer squash, strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and watermelons. He also sells his produce and sorghum at the Montgomery County Farmers' Market in Mount Sterling.
"I've always farmed part-time – tobacco and sorghum, mainly," said Townsend, who owns 300 acres, 200 of which can be traced back to his great-grandfather.
Served in Vietnam
As far back as Townsend can remember, his family has grown a sorghum crop and made the sweet syrup. "I don't know how my family got into it," Townsend said. "My dad made sorghum basically all his life. I started at [age] 13-14 and never missed a crop" — except in 1970, when he was in Vietnam.
Townsend was a member of the U.S. Army's First Aviation Brigade.
Just don't call him a hero.
"The guys that lost their lives over there were the heroes," Townsend said. "I just went and did what I was asked to do. I'm just an ol' country boy who made it back alive."
Townsend said his rural upbringing helped him survive 14 months in the Mekong Delta. After basic training at Fort Knox and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, La., he was based from February 1970 to April 1971 guarding a helicopter airfield in the village of Vinh Long.
"I'd always carried a gun since I was big enough, and I was used to hunting and fishing outdoors," he said. "Some of the guys in my unit grew up in the city, and they were really lost over there."
As a little boy, Townsend can remember his father using a mule to pull a "sweep pole," which powered a mill to squeeze the juice from the stalks of sorghum cane. Later, his dad used his tractor to turn the squeezing mechanism, which is similar to the wringer on an antique washing machine.
Today, Townsend Sorghum Mill is powered by a diesel engine. But at least one of the machines he uses in his modern mill is an antique.
"I have one machine that's over 100 years old," he said, noting the 1906 patent date is stamped on it.
Sorghum syrup is made by removing the by-products from the juice and boiling it to remove the water. Instead of boiling the juice in small pans over burning wood, as his forefathers did, Townsend now uses large pans and steam from a natural gas-fired boiler.
"Steam provides consistent heat, so the juice cooks faster," he said. "It also gives you a better product by making it milder."
Many folks get sorghum confused with molasses, which comes from sugar cane as a by-product of sugar production. Sugar cane is a sub-tropical plant, and in the United States, it can be grown only in the deep South. Sweet sorghum requires only a four-month growing season and has been grown in all 48 states of the continental U.S.
"Sorghum is milder and lighter in color than molasses," Townsend said. "My daddy even called it sorghum molasses."
A U.S. patent officer introduced sweet sorghum to America in 1853. The plant, which is native to Africa, is a drought-resistant, heat-tolerant member of the grass family.
Sorghum making was once an autumn ritual in rural Kentucky, when the syrup was the primary sweetener before granulated sugar became cheap and plentiful in the mid-20th century.
National sorghum production peaked at 24 million gallons in the 1880s. By 1975, the U.S. Agricultural Census reported just 2,400 acres producing less than 400,000 gallons of syrup.
"Everybody either quit or died off," Townsend said. "But I was too stubborn to quit. That kept us in business, I guess."
Sorghum has made a national comeback in the past 35 years with 25,000 to 30,000 acres planted today, according to the NSSPPA. Most all of the acreage is in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Kentucky leads the nation is sweet sorghum production and is the only state with its own sorghum association, which Townsend helped start.
"I sell sorghum seed, too, and it's been crazy the last four or five years," Townsend said. He said the high price of crude oil has renewed interest in using sorghum to make ethanol. "Sorghum is probably the best crop for ethanol. With universities doing studies on ethanol, I've been sending seeds everywhere.
"Sorghum right now is really catching on, not only for ethanol but for use as an ingredient in high-end restaurants," Townsend said. He noted that chef Edward Lee of Magnolia 610 restaurant in Louisville, a finalist on the reality TV show "Top Chef" last year, uses sorghum as a sweetener in many of his dishes.
For more information on Townsend's Sweet Sorghum, visit www.townsendsorghummill.com.
To find out more about Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets and Homegrown by Heroes, go to www.kyproud.com/veterans/.