- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

MILLS RIVER, N.C. (AP) - After 15 years of growing corn, hay, soybeans and tomatoes, North River Farms is tapping into a family tradition to expand its agribusiness.

For the first time in North River Farms’ history, owner Jason Davis is using his grandparents’ method - and equipment - to process the farm’s sugarcane into “old-timey sugar drip sugar cane molasses.”

This fall’s inaugural batches, or what Davis calls “trial runs,” are being taste-tested by friends and family, and Davis plans to market the molasses in the future.

For now, he’s picking up tips from grandparents Rex “Papaw” and Doris “Mamaw” Fox, who made molasses on their own farm in Lancaster for years.

“This has been passed down through generations of my family. Every bit of this stuff came from their farm,” he said, gesturing to the rectangular metal box boiling sugarcane juice over a brick-and-stone fire pit. “We moved all the molasses equipment here to Mills River this year.”

“That box holds 60 gallons of juice” and produces about six or seven gallons of molasses, Rex Fox said. “My mom and daddy and grandma used to make apple butter in that box, and pumpkin butter.”

Davis said he harvests the sugarcane before the fall’s first freeze, and uses his mill to squeeze out the juice - which is boiled in the 60-gallon metal box.

“They wait until it gets between 225 and 230 (degrees), and remove it from the heat and pour it directly into the milk cans,” said Dyna Forester, farm employee and Davis’ childhood friend.

Once the liquid in the milk cans cools overnight, the molasses is poured into Mason jars and is ready to use.

During the five or six hours the cane juice boils, Davis and other farm employees use a copper strainer handmade by Rex Fox to skim the green pulp that bubbles to the juice’s surface.

Doris Fox said that when she and her husband made the molasses on their farm, one of her jobs was wiping the pulp from the inside walls of the box, catching what the strainer missed.

She said they also used to cook hams over the smoke escaping from the fire pit in Lancaster, whereas Davis constructed a smokestack to funnel the smoke out of the barn.

“We had a different setup,” Doris Fox said. “I always kept a pot of coffee going out there.”

Not only is the activity a walk down memory lane for the family, cooking molasses may prove to be a new revenue stream for the farm and grow Henderson County’s agritourism, Davis said.

Already, he said, “We’ve had a lot of folks visiting, looking at how this is done.”

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Information from: Times-News, https://www.blueridgenow.com

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