GRAVEL SWITCH — Seventeen-year-old Kaitlyn Elliott understands the hard work and dedication that goes into making sorghum.
After all, her family has been doing it for at least four generations on their Gravel Switch farm, and the Boyle County teen is continuing that tradition, working with her grandfather, Jimmy, as the duo produces Poorhouse Sorghum and barbecue sauce.
"It's a lot of hard work," said Elliott. "It's very labor intensive."
All that hard work paid off for Elliott, who cinched a Future Farmers of America State Star in agribusiness for her work — the first in the history of Boyle County High School.
"We have supervised agriculture experiences, which are basically projects outside of the classroom that you work on," she said.
Entrants have to submit an application with information about the project and themselves. The competition starts at the individual chapter levels. Those selected go on to the regional, then state competitions.
A committee of teachers put Elliott through the process at the regional level. They visited the farms of the students to see their products and actually got to taste Poorhouse Sorghum.
At the state level, those who were still in the competition were interviewed.
"They look at your application and make sure that what you're saying is accurate. They decide a lot based on how much work you've put into it and, especially, on what you hope to get out of it in the future," Elliott said.
One of her FFA advisers, Toni Myers, explained that the scoring was 60 percent based on her application, which included photos and background information about her project, and 40 percent based on the interview process.
"They asked a lot of questions about how I produce sorghum and how I produce barbecue sauce. They asked about my future plans, and then they asked a few questions about challenges I've had in my business and successes I've had in my business," Elliott said.
One of the biggest challenges, Elliott said, came when the mill used by her and her grandpa broke.
"A sorghum mill, the old ones, used to be run by horse or mule. Our mill that's run on a complete PTO shaft broke, so we had to use a horse-drawn mill, because that's all we had," Elliott said. (PTO shafts, or power takeoff shafts, can be hooked to a truck or tractor to power a variety of equipment.)
However, instead of using a horse or mule, Elliott and her grandfather hooked up a riding lawnmower to the mill.
"It took longer," she said.
Elliott spent six hours running the mill that day, driving the lawnmower around. At the end, she said she had a new appreciation for the old way of doing things — had they used a mule, it would have taken even longer.
Sorghum is hard work, but she loves it.
"Unless you just really like to work, it's not something you want to try and get into," Elliott said with a smile.
About this time of year, she explained, seeds are sown. The plant doesn't have to be harvested until late August. Unlike vegetables that have a certain harvesting time, Elliott said sorghum can remain in the fields for awhile.
"I only have to harvest what I'm going to use at the time," she said.
Chopping it down requires the use of a machete. The plants will grow anywhere from 6-8 feet tall. When the wind blows, though, they will fall over.
"We have to chop it all down by hand, which becomes a bit of an issue sometimes, because it's so many long hours and they all get tangled in with each other," she said. "After that, we strip the leaves off, which is something that you don't have to do, but it's something that our family has always done.
"The leaves leave a little bit of a bitter taste. It's a bit of extra work, but we know we'll have the best-tasting product when we're done."
They put the sorghum through the mill, crushing it, which produces a sugary liquid. It's cooked, sometimes up to eight hours, although a grant has enabled Elliott to purchase a new cooking box and speed up the cooking time. They bottle it up for sorghum or make barbecue sauce.
The sorghum barbecue sauce is an idea Elliott's grandpa Jimmy gave her after he attended a Sorghum Association meeting.
She turned Poorhouse Sorghum into a business after graduating from the Young Entrepreneur's Academy. Elliott was able to progress through the academy, competing at the local and national levels.
Using her newly found business knowledge, Elliott sets up with sorghum and barbecue sauce at the Boyle County Farmer's Market at the Third Street parking lot on Saturdays and the Boyle County Fairgrounds during the week.
Despite it being a family trade, Elliott only got into the business about five years ago.
"My older cousin was involved in it as well. They needed some help, so I went out and helped them one or two days toward the very end of the season, just to get a feel for it and see if that was something I wanted to do," she said.
And she was sold.
"I think it's really neat that we actually have a family tradition like that. I know a lot of people will pass things down, like necklaces or other items, but when you pass down an actual process and a big tradition that's been in the family, I think that's really neat," Elliott said. "A lot of people don't know how to make sorghum anymore."
One of the biggest reasons she loves it is that she gets to work with her grandfather.
"He just really thinks a lot of it, and he's so glad that I've gotten involved. He's glad that he knows the family tradition will keep going as long as I'm around to make sure that it does," she said. "I love every minute of it.
"It's really great the fact that we do it together. This is what we do, we're out in the field, we'll chop down sorghum and we'll talk for hours."
She plans to continue making and selling the products during and after attending the University of Kentucky, where she wants to pursue a degree in agriculture education. Elliott said she hopes to become an agriculture teacher, something at which Myers, her adviser, said the teen will undoubtedly excel.
"She's just awesome. Whatever she decides to do, she'll be good at," Myers said.
Next year, Elliott hopes to start making flour, using the seed head of the sorghum plant, which is naturally gluten-free.