Lessons learned from the land
BARNESVILLE Olney Friends School cultivates young minds, drawing lessons this harvest season from the land and the traditions of its Belmont County campus.
In addition to studying humanities, mathematics and the sciences, pupils at Olney this month are getting a taste of what it’s like to grow the very food that sustains them. And while they may enjoy the black beans, potatoes and fresh eggs from the school’s farm, students also have the opportunity to explore some regional heritage by helping to make home-grown sorghum molasses.
Sorghum is a type of grass, similar to sugar cane. The crop is grown for human and animal consumption, as well as for use as a biofuel. The grain it produces can be fed to livestock or ground to produce flour for making bread, cookies and more. But it is the liquid contained in the sorghum stalks that is making a sweet treat for members of the Olney community.
Barnesville resident Fred Cooper, a 1966 graduate of Olney, is helping his alma mater by providing the mill that staff and students are using to press the cane they have harvested from a field on the old Taber Farm, a part of the 350-acre campus on the east end of Barnesville. Cooper said his portable mill, built in 1896, was designed to be powered by horses or mules.
Alan Skinner, father of Olney Assistant Farm Manager Sandy Sterrett, painted and rebuilt the press last year after it had been exposed to the elements for decades. He also adapted the machine – salvaged from Columbiana County, Ohio to be used on a modern farm and powered by a tractor.
Cooper said the age of the mill is telling, as sorghum was a popular sweetener in Belmont County and throughout the Midwest for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“At one time, it was a staple food for people who couldn’t afford white sugar,” Cooper said.
After the cane is cut, leaves are stripped from the stalks. Workers then feed the cane through the old mill, which uses cast iron rollers to squeeze the juice from the plant. That juice is then boiled over a wood fire, producing thick, sweet, dark syrup.
All-natural sorghum molasses is rich in potassium and protein, and it is popular as a topping for pancakes and biscuits and as an ingredient in many other traditional dishes. Students at Olney already have enjoyed a snack of sorghum butter spread on fresh-baked bread.
Students from Barnesville High School also got some hands-on experience working with sorghum during a visit to Olney last week. A total of 22 juniors and seniors from BHS spent an entire day at Olney, exploring the campus and all it has to offer.
Olney Farm Manager Don Guindon expects to produce about 30 gallons of sorghum molasses from this year’s crop. He said the work will continue through this week, with the last batch to be cooked Monday, Oct. 21. Olney adheres to “organic plus” standards on its farm, using no chemicals and employing best practices for soil health.
Founded in 1837, Olney Friends School is a coeducational high school. It draws on Quaker traditions, including the values of truthfulness, simplicity, nonviolence and respect for the good in every person.
Olney welcomes both boarding students from around the world and day students from the local area to its campus at 61830 Sandy Ridge Road, Barnesville. For more information about the school or its sorghum production, visit www.olneyfriends.org or call 740-425-3655.
Olney students have the opportunity to learn from the land year-round as members of the school’s Farm Team. Participants count their work as a physical education elective; other P.E. offerings include soccer, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics.