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Business

February 5, 2011

Shop Talk: Blenheim Hill Sorghum

Blenheim Hill Sorghum 335 Cornell Road, Stamford Owners: Tony and Mary VanGlad and their sons, Mark and Adam Established: 2007 Employees: Four

Shop Talk is a weekly column featuring locally owned and operated businesses. This week, we talk to Mark VanGlad of Blenheim Hill Sorghum in Stamford.

How long have you lived in the area?

Pretty close to most of my life; I've have been here since 1973.

Tell me about your business:

We grow and harvest a plant called sorghum, which produces a sweet juice when the stems are crushed. Sorghum is minimally processed using maple syrup equipment to create a thick, golden syrup, which we sell in many different-size containers and quantities. Sorghum can be used as a cane sugar substitute, and in most areas of the world where maple syrup is not readily available or affordable, sorghum can substitute.

Describe a typical day in your business:

Our sorghum work days begin in the sugar house handling the previous day's syrup. By around 9 a.m., we start harvesting in the field when the plants are still cool from the evening September and October nights. Related to corn, the plants look like very tall, skinny corn stalks with no cobs. We use a two-row harvester that grinds the stalks and keeps the juice in reserve. By about 2 p.m., we stop the field work to begin placing the sorghum juice into our vats for separation overnight so we can begin the filtering and evaporation process again the following morning.

How did you get started in this line of work?

I read an article in a farm magazine that described the plants and the process; it sounded like something that we could do on our farm. I called the article's author, and he said that there was a sorghum growers conference where I could talk with other people and learn all about this crop I did go and did learn. This is a very popular product in the southern states, but in this entire northern region, many people have never even heard of it before or know that it grows well here.

Where do you see this business in five years?

I would like to see our product in many more stores along with having a larger number of wholesale clients. Right now, the product is sold in retail stores around the area, including Stamford Farmers Co-Op and Shaver Hill Maple.

Describe a memorable moment in your workplace:

I think that the first time we had the harvester in the field, the first chopping and crushing was being done and we saw the juice being squeezed out of the plant. Eureka! It works! It was that moment when we really felt that this was something that was going to be a success.

What have you learned from your work?

Well, this would definitely fit into that common saying of "Don't quit your day job," but really what I have learned the most about is persistence. Persist through setbacks, keep trying and don't give up.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

Like many farmers, the weather is one of my greatest challenges. Harvest time has to be planned carefully and sugar contents checked but weather has the final say in harvesting. It's challenging, because this time of year, there is just not enough time to harvest even when the weather is good.

The most enjoyable?

Making a sale after someone has tried sorghum for the first time. I love speaking with customers and hearing what they think of our sorghum, especially if they are trying sorghum for the first time.

How do you define success for your business?

Happy customers is the top definition of success and from there, making money and being able to earn enough of an income for me to stay on the farm

What are some advantages as well as drawbacks of doing business in this area?

One really important advantage of doing a business like this in this region is that there are so many farmers who can help out with advice and assistance with tools. It is hard to come up with negatives but the population here where most people do not have ample free change to buy something that they are not sure they will like or use.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

As far as I know, we may be the only business up north that is growing and selling sorghum, so currently there is no competition.

What advice would you give to someone trying to enter your field of work?

Get information from as many producers as possible about the plants, harvesting, processing and marketing. I would strongly recommend that they join the National Sweet Sorghum Producers Association.

Shop Talk interviews are conducted by Terry Hannum. For information, call The Daily Star at 432-1000, ext. 217, or e-mail news@thedailystar.com.

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