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November 24, 2010   Email to Friend 

BOILING POINT: Syrup Maker Joe Todd Raises Cane For Good Reason
By Darryal Ray

Joe Todd, a fifth-generation syrup maker, stands in his cane field outside Dothan.
In the sweet days of late October, Joe Todd knows that a watched pot does indeed boil. He also knows enough about making cane syrup that he seldom ventures far from his syrup shed on Hall Road in Houston County once his cane crop comes in.

That's because Todd, a fifth-generation syrup maker, knows that overcooked syrup looks dark and tastes bitter. "If you can't see through it, it will be bitter and strong," he says, as he checks the water content with a hand-held hydrometer.

"If it was anybody's but mine, I'd have to stay right here with it," says Todd. "But I've done it so long, I know exactly how to set my burners and when I can walk away for a few minutes, but I never go more than 5 or 10 minutes away."

From about mid-March until mid- December, Todd and his wife, Edria, will plant, irrigate, cut, strip, grind, cook, bottle, label and sell around 1,200 gallons of cane syrup -- all from about three acres of sugar cane. If the crop is good, they'll spend four to six hours on each batch they make. Such is the life of a syrup maker, a fast-fading art that once was part of life in rural communities all over the South.

"Dad and Grandpa were all syrup makers for the community, and we made syrup for everybody," said Todd, who is 74 and retired from both the Montgomery Police Department and the Department of Corrections.

"Everybody in this area had a cane patch, and somebody in the community made syrup for everybody. We sweetened tea with it. We made cakes, pies, cookies, teacakes. That was sugar for us. ... I even remember Dad tearing everything down and going to another community. He came down almost to Ozark and stayed a week making syrup. But people had to have syrup -- it was a part of life."

For the Todd family, it's always been a part of life. Today, Todd even uses some of the same hand-made tools his grandfather made from longleaf pine and old wagon parts.

"My granddad said he and his granddad were stripping cane in October 1864 when they saw (my great grandfather) walking home from the war," said Todd. "Grandpa said, 'I'm ashamed to admit it, but I never had the thought that I'm glad my dad survived the war' ...he said, 'All I thought about was I won't be hungry no more.'"

It's a tradition that Todd wanted to carry on himself, but wasn't able to do so when he left home. "I moved out of the house up there with Mama and Daddy on Pea River Swamp, and when I was 21, went to work for the Montgomery Police Department," says Todd. "The first day on the force I put (civil rights leader) Rev. David Abernathy in jail. ... All I ever wanted to be was a dirt farmer. But I didn't own any land, I didn't own a tractor and help was getting hard to get by then. I wanted a family and so I had to seek another way of making a living."

It wasn't until retirement in 1997 that Todd snatched up a peanut farm in danger of foreclosure and began pursuing his dream as a syrup maker.

Today, he's regarded as one of the best around. Vince Lamb of North Augusta, S.C., goes even farther, calling him "the best in the United States."

"Nobody knows as much about syrup making as Mr. Todd," said Lamb, who frequently makes the 500-mile roundtrip trek just to spend the day watching Todd make syrup in hopes of picking up some knowledge he can use in making jams and jellies for his own gift basket business. "I've learned a lot from him."

Many syrup makers, Lamb said, lack the patience to make the kind of syrup Todd turns out.

"They'll get the fire too hot like it's about to boil over, and they'll have three people with buckets throwing the syrup up in the air trying to cool it off," said Lamb. "By the time, they pour it up, I wouldn't eat it. It's syrup and to a lot of people who don't know syrup, that's good syrup. But THIS is good syrup. This is good stuff. It looks like honey. There's no sugar in it, no impurities. That's what he's got here -- the knowledge and knowing when it's cooking right and smelling right. That's something you can't write on a recipe. That's an art. ... I really enjoy coming over here. I tell him, 'I don't want to interfere with you, but when you're cooking, let me know and I'll be here.' I just come over to watch."

So do the countless tours and school groups who visit the Todd Cane Syrup Farm as it is listed on the state's agri-tourism list. "We're one of the few that don't charge anything; that's why we have so many visitors. If you look at our guest book, we've even had people from Romania and Modesto, Calif."

For those who can't make it to the farm, the Todds also ship syrup.

"We ship a lot of syrup. Hall Road is a mile long, but we ship more syrup to Littleton, Colo., than all of our neighbors put together."

"This is a free labor deal," Todd added. "We try to get our expenses back. The going rate for cane syrup is $10 a quart, and our price is $6.50. .... We don't want to be in the moneymaking business -- we just want to be in the syrup-making business."

For more information about Todd Cane Syrup Farm, call (334) 677-7804. The farm's fourth edition of "Todd's Syrup Cookbook" is now available for $12 by writing 512 Hall Road, Dothan, AL 36301.

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