Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Broom Corn Harvest

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.

To table the brushes, we fold down the stalks between knuckles so that the brushes can continue to harden and mature but won’t bend over from the weight of the developing seeds.
It also protects the brushes from the frosts that are possible at this time of year. I get the impression that all the broom corn was tabled at one time in large fields but since we only grew a small amount we checked daily and folded them down as we thought they were ready. Once it was all tabled, we waited a few more days and then cut the brushes.

I did this with a knife this year instead of pruning shears like last year because that is how it would have been harvested “back in the day.” It was fun but I was very aware of the location of my body parts in relation to the swing of the knife – this could be dangerous. As I went along I left small piles or “gavels” of cut brush between the rows to be picked up later.

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!

Next, the brushes needed to be laid out to cure. Our hop house has the ideal space for this since it has a slatted floor in the second story for hops to dry.

In 1845 broom corn was a significant crop in New York State as there were several broom factories in need of brushes. At the same time, some farmers would just grow a small crop to satisfy their own needs for brooms. Years ago I a made the fancy brooms that are turned out in our broom shop here at the museum, but this winter I will try making a simple twine bound broom for use in our barns from part of our own homegrown broom corn. The rest I will deliver to our current broom maker, Joan Noonan, in the Westcott Shop. The brushes used there today to make the fine house brooms are imported from Mexico and much longer than the ones we grew. But Joan will probably be able to make a whisk broom or two that can be labeled “Grown and Made in Cooperstown, New York!”

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.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting--I'm thinking of growing some broomcorn next yr and trying to make some brooms. The details you included about harvesting is giving me more confidence to do this. Thanks for sharing.

Ellen Cool said...

Thankyou, that was well written,with pleasing pages.You filled in some holes in my understanding of broom corn and brooms..your good photos helped alot.
I have at times purchased very handsome wreaths made of broom corn, the rimming bunches made with the top 2 feet of the plants, tied sequentially onto a round metal frame. I hung one on a heavy hook outdoors and it was a squirrel family's Thanksgiving feast.We got a lot of pleasure from giving them this gift as we daily watched their antics of acquisition. Not a seed remained after about three weeks. E

Burney said...

As a young man (16 yo) in the fifties I cut broom corn and I would like to caution you about using that big butcher knife. A broom corn knife ( called a Johnny Knife) is only a few inches long. To use it you only lay the knife against the stalk and pull the head against the knife. This way the stalk comes out of the sheaf and no stripping is necessary.
When "Breaking" the corn a person walks between two rows grabbing several stalks in each hand about hip level. By breaking the stalk behind you alternately left to right, right to left it forms a table hip high so the heads hang conveniently off the the edge of the row. Sure makes it easier to cut then you can place the heads on top of the table for easy collection.

LeRoy England said...

This is a very interesting site to me. I am a native of Campo, a small town in southeastern Colorado. Broomcorn was the main money crop of Baca County Colorado until the early 1970's. I remember coming home from college on fall break and restacking the broomcorn ricks in our field that the cows had torn down. My dad along with several others in the county ran broomcorn crews to harvest the crop. Crews would run any where from 20 to 40 men sometimes women and children. Harvest would begin in the fall when the first crop was ready to cut and run until the last ricks were baled and put in storage until sold to a local broomcorn buyer. This crop created a whole culture that we no longer have. Many interesting stories and happenings centered around the broom corn industry.

berkshirebee said...

Thanks for the interesting site. I have some spaces in our community garden and planted a patch of broom corn. I was inspired by a little festival I went to where someone was making brooms and I thought it was really cool. I'm hoping to give it a go and maybe plant even more next year.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this information. My husband planted some broom corn because he thought it was an interesting plant. I just harvested some of them that were ready and will do the rest in a few days. I might just have enough to make one decorative, primitive hearth broom.

Rocky Creek Scotties and Rocky Creek Ramblings said...

Thank you for posting this. My husband and I took a broom making class at Mabry Mill, VA a couple of years ago. Since it is so hard to find the supplies, we decided to try to grow our own broom-corn. This year we had a few stalks that came up from what we planted. We are hoping that we can harvest enough seeds from it to be able to have a larger crop next year.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to verify.... You cannot plant the dried seeds correct?

blog team said...

If you are saving your own seed, you should let it dry completely, store it safely, and plant it in the spring. If you are buying broom corn seed, it should come dried and ready for planting.

Bink said...

I am reading a novel set in Colorado during my grandfather's time, and came across a reference to broom corn. I found this article as a result of my search. Thanks for such clear, well -illustrated description. The photos really helped me to understand the plant and the work described.

Anonymous said...

I planted broom corn for the first time this year. A friend gave me some seeds and I planted my string beans in between them. String beans and broom corn doing great. My husband and I visited the Farmers Musuem a couple of years ago and just loved it. Keep on farming and thank you for providing the information on how to harvest the broom corn.

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