By: Marieanne Coursen, Agricultural Interpreter.
When I first started working at The Farmers’ Museum in 1997, I worked in the Westcott Shop making brooms. Now I work here as a farmer and have had the opportunity to grow and process broom corn. I find this very satisfying as I like to know how to do things from beginning to end; that is why I grow a garden, bake from scratch, knit with yarn I spun myself, etc. Makes me a little crazy, but happy!
This is our second year of growing broom corn at the Lippitt Farmstead. The plant is not really a corn at all, although it really looks like corn except for the fact that there are no ears. It is actually a type of sorghum. Other types of sorghum are grown as feed for cows: my son grows it to feed to his dairy cows, and another variety is grown in the south for sweet sorghum syrup and is even being studied for use in ethanol production. The variety that we grow for making brooms isn’t good for much of anything besides brooms. The brushes are harvested before the seeds fully mature so there is no grain value, and the plant itself is apparently not very tasty since it is the only crop we can grow here at the museum that does not get bothered by the deer! The seed is sown in rows in mid-May much like corn but closer together in the row and needs to be kept free of weeds. Our broom corn grew very well this year:
Harvesting broom corn is very labor intensive. As the brushes developed at the top we watched them carefully. When the brush emerges from the sheath it is time to “table” it.
Once the brushes were cut and gathered, the outer sheath – a leaf that surrounds the base of the brush and the peduncle (a fun word for the stalk that is attached to the brush) – had to be removed. This is easily done by peeling it off.
The next step was to remove the developing seeds. A book called Broom-corn and Brooms found in our NYSHA Library suggests using a curry comb to clean small lots of brush. This was a suggestion that escaped me last year when I left the brushes to cure with the seeds on and combed them later with a three toothed hatchel found in our broom shop. This worked OK but the curry comb used immediately after harvest worked much better!
So, now that I’ve both grown broomcorn and used it to make brooms, I can confidently say that if I had to, I could produce my own broom! Maybe next year I will grow flax and make a shirt – or maybe not.