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Broom Corn Harvest!

various broom sizes

October is a month full of harvests! Harvesting is when farmers pick or cut the crops in their field and use the plants for food or other things. Many Iowa farmers are busy right now harvesting corn–for animals to eat and for people to eat.

At Living History Farms, we also have a special type of corn that is not for eating at all! Instead, it is harvested to make brooms! Brooms are made from a plant called broomcorn. Broomcorn is a type of sorghum plant. It is different from the corn that people and animals eat. This “corn” does not have ears filled with kernels. Instead it grows swishy tassels at the very top! These long tassels are what broom makers use to make brooms.

broomcorn seedsThe seeds of the plant are very small. Farmers plant broomcorn sometime between the middle of May and the middle of June. Farmers plant the seeds 2 inches apart in rows that are 28 inches to 48 inches apart.

broomcorn starting to tassel

Broom corn plants grow slowly at first, but after they are a foot tall they grow very rapidly. There are many varieties of broom corn, from dwarf types that grow short to really tall types.

Farmers harvest the broom corn based on when they feel it has the best “brush” or tassel for making brooms. Some farmers feel the best brush is harvested when the plant is in flower, or at most when the seed is only slightly formed. At Living History Farms, we usually harvest the plant in the middle of October when it looks like this.

fully grown broomcornWhen the farmer feels the broom corn is ready, the plant is tabled. Our farmers walk through the corn patch and bend the stalk over like this.

tabled broomcornTabling is when the stalks of the plant are bent over, about 30” from the ground, towards the next row in a diagonal direction. As the stalks are bent over the next row it creates the look of a table top in the field. Doing this allows the tassels to stay straight as they continue to lengthen.

broom corn tassels with seeds

sorted broomcornWhen it is time to bring the tassels out of the field, the tassels are cut off with about 8” of stalk on them. The farmer then takes the tassels to a building that has slotted shelves to place the tassels on. These shelves allow the tassels to completely dry in a flat position. The seeds are then combed off the tassels and the tassels taken apart in order to separate the fibers by length. The sorted tassels are then placed into bundles and the different length bundles are sold to broom making factories. The factories then use the broomcorn to make different styles of brooms to be sold at stores. At Living History Farms, our broom corn factory still makes brooms using machines over one hundred years old!

brooms

Comments

  • Ron Allen says:

    I am now 76 years old. My grandfather lived in east central Illinois and there along with other crops he raised broomcorn. I actually participated in harvesting the heads that were used to make brooms in a nearby small town, Arcola,, Illinois. The stalk of the broomcorn plant was somewhat like regular corn plants but much smaller in diameter and did not produce ears of corn.
    I recall helping in the harvest which was all done by hand the exception being a tractor and flat bed wagon used to haul it out of the field and a seeder which was a machine that was used to separate the seed from the head of the broomcorn, the part used to make brooms. The head grew out of the top of the stalk and was filled with small seeds about the size of very small buckshot found in shot gun shells.
    The harvest was accomplished often by two men working together. One man would proceed down the field moving backward between two rows taking a small amount of stalks in one arm and pulling them across his body until they broke so that the head would be parallel with the ground approximately 3 feet off the ground. He then would do the same with the opposite arm thereby making the broken stalks into what resembled a table. The breaker would proceed down the rows breaking with one arm and and then the other to end of the row. At that point he would pull out his “broomcorn knife’ which was approximately 8-9 inches in length with a round handle with a leather loop for the fingers protection when gripped . The blade was approximately 5 or 6 inches in length 1.5 inches in width without a pointed end.
    With this knife he would cut the head off about 6 inches below the part of the head which would be used eventually, with many other heads to form the business end of the broom.
    While the first worker was proceeding backward down the field breaking his fellow worker would begin cutting on one side behind him. Often they might take turns breaking and cutting.
    At some point toward the end of the day the tractor and wagon would move through the field going down the table that did not have heads laid on it and being loaded proceeded to haul the load to and area nearby the broomcorn shed where the heads would be run through the machine to remove the seeds and the heads would be placed on shelves made of 1×2 in. slats supported at each end by being placed in spaces of the boards the walls were made of. These walls were not solid but were made with spaces for the shelving boards so that air could surround the heads as that dried.
    Eventually the broom making factory would purchase these broomcorn heads and take them to their factory and make them into brooms.

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