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Sorghum harvester moves from Tech to Mississippi

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 17 - January 22, 1998

The sale by Virginia Tech's Department of Biological Systems Engineering of a one-of-a-kind sorghum harvester to Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., is as sweet as syrup.
In fact, the sorghum harvester built by the department will be used in Alcorn State's efforts to revive the syrup-making industry in the South. In colonial days, syrup was made in the region by extracting the juice from sweet sorghum and sugarcane and boiling it down into syrup.
Several communities in middle Tennessee, middle Kentucky, northern Alabama, and southwestern Mississippi have continued making table syrup in this traditional method. But the cottage industry commands just a small market, largely due to the intensive labor need to harvest sorghum by hand.
The Department of Biological Systems Engineering developed the whole-stalk sweet sorghum harvester in 1986 in a project at Virginia Tech exploring the use of sorghum as a source of sugar and fiber for making ethanol, said John Cundiff, professor in the department.
The exploration of sorghum's potential as a source for ethanol ended in 1991. Currently, 90 percent of the fuel ethanol in the U.S. is produced from corn grain.
The pull-type harvester was loaned to a Madison County farmer for two years before it was refurbished by Virginia Tech and sold to Alcorn State, Cundiff said.
Power for all the harvester's subsystems is supplied via a universal joint driveline from the tractor. The harvester cuts a single row of stalks and accumulates them in a U-shaped frame. When the frame is full, the machine stops and the frame rotates to dump the bundle of stalks. It can harvest about four acres of sorghum stalks per day.
William Patten, an agronomy specialist with Alcorn State's Cooperative Extension program, is coordinating that university's syrup-making program. He hopes the harvester will help in efforts to revive and expand syrup-making in the region, one of the strategies being pursued to help farmers diversify their crops.
Cundiff provided initial training on using to harvester to Patten and others at a farm in Claiborne County, Miss. Patten plans to conduct a number of demonstrations of the harvester during the next harvesting season.
Not only did the harvester play an important part in the Virginia Tech ethanol project, it was also used as projects for several students, including a Ph.D. research project that analyzed the harvester's hydraulic system.
"This machine has served Virginia Tech and farmers in Virginia well in many ways," Cundiff said. "I find it gratifying that it can continue its usefulness by serving farmers in Mississippi as well."