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.
The 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.
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.
When 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.
Tabling 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.
When 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!