Backyard Sugaring at Green Hope Farm

Our Maple sugaring season has begun in earnest. Here is an overview of the process for anyone interested.

My kind of Maple sugaring is called backyard sugaring by locals. One way to describe backyard sugaring is that it is small scale sugaring on a shoestring. Many who practice the art of backyard sugaring especially enjoy improvising equipment from other farm and household stuff like old coffee cans. I have even seen a sap holding tank set on top of an old outhouse toilet. This gave me pause, but for others it was probably a splendid innovation.

I like a sugaring set up that has a bit of beauty to it as well as Yankee ingenuity. To this end, I was lucky enough to start our tiny operation with long time Green Hope Farm neighbor Teddy Grobe’s beautiful sugaring buckets. She saved them when she sold her farm in the late 1970’s. Our first year sugaring at Green Hope Farm, we borrowed a boiling pan from another friend. We found after our first boil, that it was too small.

Fortunately there is a wonderful local craftsman who makes lead free boiling pans for small sugaring operations. His pans are available at the famous general store in Norwich, VT called ‘Dan and Whit’s’. Its slogan is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” and quite frankly, this is true. During sugaring season, Dan & Whit’s fills a space in its back warehouse with sugaring supplies including buckets, taps, hydrometers, felts, boiling pans, and containers to put up the syrup. There are always gentlemen there to talk sugaring too. Most of my sugaring equipment, including our boiling pan, came from ‘Dan & Whit’s’.

The hydrometer is a way to test the syrup for its density. Maple sap is syrup at 7 degrees fahrenheit above the boiling point of water at that same time and place. There is a mouthful! This is usually around 219 degrees fahrenheit. All kinds of drama occurs just when syrup is ready so it’s really helpful to have a hydrometer. For one thing, it helps me know when I have reached the syrup point before I have a boil over. More on boil overs later. Maybe even photos if you are really lucky!

Felts are big wool filters used to remove impurities from the sap, including something called sugar sand or nitre. This is a harmless precipitate that is considered objectionable by the maple trade. Felts are used at the very end of the sugaring process when the syrup is being put up and bottled.

‘Dan & Whit’s’ offers many varieties of fancy Maple leaf shaped glass containers and decorated tins to put up the syrup in, but I now use plain quart canning jars. I have come to prefer these over tins. Never ever was a fan of the plastic jugs so common these days. Yuck.

I mostly use metal taps for tapping the trees. I’ll try to get a close up shot of one of these this season so you can see how the bucket hangs off this tap. The technology is very wabi sabi, very efficient, and elegant. The tapping hole is made with a 7/16th inch drill bit. Our neighbor’s sugaring operation puts in 6,000 taps. They use an electric drill, but we use this lovely old fashioned drill with a silky porcelain door knob sort of thing that you can lean your body against as you drill. This too was a gift from Teddy. You can see a photo of Will using this drill earlier in my series of blogs. The holes are put into the tree at a slight upward slant so that the sap runs out well.

We use a few plastic taps with one row of trees set on a steep slope that is hard to access. The taps on these trees are connected to plastic tubing. This tubing merges into one tube that flows downhill into one big container. Not so wabi sabi but quicker to collect.

Each year, before I tap, I ask the Maple grove we sugar if it wants to have a sugaring season. For all the years we have had these particular trees to tap, they have always asked to be tapped, even when I thought they might want a rest.

Maple groves or “sugar bushes” are hot commodities in my village. I was part of a cooperative sugaring operation for a number of years, but it got a bit crazy with lots of people who said they wanted to help, but only a few of us actually doing the work. We had hundreds of trees tapped and not enough hands, so eventually I left that cooperative and waited for some trees to become available to tap for a smaller operation.

For the trees I now tap, there was a wait until another sugarer lost interest in these trees. Once we had permission from the landowner to tap these trees, it was understood by other backyard sugarers in town that these trees are now ours to tap from season to season. Everyone is very meticulous about respecting each other’s sugar bush territory. However, there is a lot of rubber necking to see who has put their taps in when, how full someone’s collecting tanks are, and whether they seem to be boiling more or less that everyone else is boiling. This time of year I look for excuses to go into the village to see if the biggest sugaring operation in town is cranking. If their roof is billowing out telltale Maple sap steam, I will stop in for a schmooze. Sugaring is all about the schmooze.

Back to our precious group of Maples, unless the landowner withdraws permission, these trees will remain in our care from season to season. I appreciate that, because these trees have become friends.

We tap several old mother Maple trees in a hedgerow along an old pasture. They have been giving their sap to sugarers for decades. Each season, I ask them how many taps they want and where they want us to put in the taps. Usually it is no more than two taps per tree but a couple of the biggest mother Maples sometimes ask for three. Traditional wisdom is to tap underneath bigger branches because this is where the sap will be flooding up into these branches. Most of our taps also go in on the south side of the trees. I am rarely guided to put taps on the north side of the trees though the traditional wisdom is to put them on all sides of the tree. The north side taps don’t seem to run much until the very end of the season for us and the end of the season is usually very short. Most of the other trees we tap are young fifty year old trees. They are clustered on a shadier hillside. This means the mother Maples on the hedgerow usually run sooner than the shaded trees.

Over the years, we have tapped in all sorts of weather. We try to wait until the weatherman suggests a stretch of freezing nights and above freezing warmer days is about to begin, but like everything about sugaring, it’s all a bit of a guessing game. This year we tapped on a day that just felt right. It turned out to be a bit chillier than I expected. I wished I had brought my hat! Nonetheless, it was wonderful to be outside! It turned out to be a good day to tap. Everything, including the Maple trees, was unthawing and the sap was flowing.

Conditions underfoot are also variable from year to year. Several years, we tapped in snow up to our thighs. Collecting through these big snow seasons was a comical process. We would plunge through snow drifts up to our waists, then try to move our full collecting buckets from where they sat, above us on top of the snow drifts. Later in the season when the snows melted, the buckets on the trees were very high up and hard to comfortably reach for emptying.

One year as we waded through this deep, deep snow to tap the trees, it was also so warm that we were dressed in t-shirts. This year there was only a very little bit of snow on the ground and it was bright and sunny.

As I mentioned, the sap was running when I put the taps in this year, but it didn’t run much and then things froze up again for another week until this past Sunday when we had an enormous run. Maple gurus in town and on the radio suggest that our slow start was because we didn’t have much snow this winter so the frost was deep in the ground.

Sap goes up into the trees when the ground begins to thaw and the air warm ups. This same sap goes back down into the roots when the air chills off at night. This up and down flow is why there is a sugaring season here. If it stays cold, the sap doesn’t move from the tree roots. If the weather warms up too fast and stays too warm then the sugaring season is brief because the sap won’t go back down into the roots at night.

In the ideal Maple sugaring season, we would have a series of days, even weeks of below freezing nights and above freezing days with sap to collect every day. Most years are some sort of strange variation of days when you think it should run and it doesn’t and days when it runs despite the wrong conditions. It seems to be a case of science meeting the mystery of Maples and Maples prevailing with their own magic.

Our first collecting tank was a makeshift container that leaked dramatically during the bouncy ride back from our trees in town to the farm. We had some rather wet years with sap sloshing and spilling into the back of various vehicles despite many small children lying on the top of the container to minimize spillage. Finally we broke the code of backyard sugaring and took a ride down to Bascom’s Sugar House in Alstead, NH to buy ourselves a proper NEW holding tank. This baby sits up proudly in our farm pick up truck, ready to hold up to 125 gallons of sap. It is really exciting when this tank gets full! Actually everything about this tank gives me a thrill. This last Sunday for example, when we went to collect, most of our buckets were almost full or completely full of sap. By the time we had gathered the sap from all the trees, we had about 100 gallons of sap swirling around in the tank to transport back up our hill.

Bascom’s is a great place to visit. Actually, I never saw a sugaring operation I didn’t want to stop in and visit. At Bascom’s, there are always the most interesting old gentlemen filling the place and folks like me who are doing the odd ten to twenty gallon operation. If you have a couple of Maples in your yard and want to give the whole thing a try, Bascom’s has a mail order catalog.

We put in about 40 taps. Traditionally wisdom is that you get about one quart of syrup per tap, but that has never been our experience. Maybe because we love the trees and let them choose the sweet spots, we always seem to get up to twice that amount of syrup from our taps. This means we get enough sap to boil down to 15 or 20 gallons of syrup from taps that would be expected to give 10 gallons. One sugarer told me I must be “doing it wrong” to be getting so much syrup, but I maintain it is all about LOVE!

I do think that most sugarers have an innate love for the trees and a respect for them, even if it isn’t quite the same kind of rapport as here at Green Hope Farm. I am not sure what the typical Maple sugarer would make of my conversations with the trees or whole approach! Over time, I hope our different world views will come together. With the traditional farmers who hay our field, they like to discuss the mysteries of why their cows prefer our grass over other fields they hay. They also have learned to call me before they hay the field so I can tell the Elementals they are coming. If they don’t call, their hay making equipment immediately breaks down on the first turn around our field. A few years of breakdowns made it easier for the farmers to remember to call ahead as requested. Whether they think they need to do this because I really need to give the Nature Spirits a heads up or because they think Green Hope Farm is just an odd place, we work together harmoniously. Maybe Maple sugaring in New England will become a similar hybrid some day.

Our boiling process is kindness of my brother in law Stephen, the very same engineer who built our Flower Essence bottling units. Actually, Stephen is the one who got us official permission to tap the Maple trees we tap. He found himself between jobs one February and thought he would make syrup on the stove in his small apartment. After his first day of boiling, he had peeled the wallpaper off his kitchen walls and processed only a couple gallons of his sap stockpile. He drafted us to join his operation and we set up a boiling system here at the farm with some Stephen innovations that we still use. For example, Stephen rebuilt a sap holding container to have a long thin pipe coming out of its bottom. This pipe can be opened just a little bit to let sap drip into the boiling pan so slowly that it doesn’t stop the boil. This works so much better than pouring big bucketfuls into the boiling pan. Bucketfuls cool off the boiling sap and then the whole pan has to be brought up to a boil again.

The best kind of boiling pan or evaporator has drop flue pans with v shapes extending down into the firebox so that the fire hits a lot more surface area of the pan and the sap boils off faster. Going from about forty gallons of sap down to that one gallon of syrup takes a long, hot fire. Maybe someday I will have a pan like that. I used them in other sugaring operations I have been a part of and they are great. Right now, I have this basic flat bottomed pan. At least I have a pour off spout.

With a fancy evaporator you move the sap from one area of the pan to another as it gets boiled down. Ultimately, you have a finishing pan where you get your sap right to the perfect point of being syrup. Then you pour it off fast and move more sap into the finish pan before the pan burns. This is great because you can put up the syrup right then and there. Plus you never have to stop your operation to pour off but can keep the whole thing going and going.

The way we do things, we boil down our sap all day long in the same pan. Then we have a sort of touch and go period at the end of the day as we try to get the sap close to done, but not overdone. Overdone sap is a scorched boiling pan. If I don’t boil the sap close enough to done, I then have to do a really long finish boil in the house. Consequently, I am always trying to get my sap really close to done before I bring it into the house to finish it off. I never quite know when to stop putting wood on the fire and let the pan simmer to a stop. The fire has to be virtually out when I pour off the day’s boil or the heat will burn the empty pan. During sugaring season, I am often out in my nightgown with a flashlight in the dark of night, scratching my head, trying to decide whether to add more wood or not.

nota bene: If you have been reading this blog for very long you probably think I am always in my nightgown or at least always putting on my nightgown before it’s a good idea. This could be true.

After many misadventures in boil overs as we finish off the syrup in the house, we have a pretty good system down. I probably think it is better than Jim who doesn’t like a stove top permanently crusted with burnt sugar. During sugaring season, the house smells like sap, has really high humidity, and resembles a museum of sugaring paraphernalia. The kitchen is a landscape of used felts, clean felts, jar lids, empty jars, full jars, thermometers, hydrometer, clothes pins, with a tiny piece of paper keeping track of it all.

Today is Tuesday. I boiled on Sunday. Then I boiled all yesterday in a downpour. This was the proverbial slow boat to China because our pan is outside exposed to the elements, which in this case meant torrential rain. I don’t know how much of what we boiled down yesterday was rainwater. Probably a lot. Now I have a little bit left to boil off today and then I will take this first batch into the house. We should get about 2 to 3 gallons of syrup from this first run. Sap earlier in the season has a little more sugar in it than later in the season which means less sap makes more syrup. This is also one of the reasons why early syrup is paler in color than late season syrup. It just hasn’t boiled down as much.

Pale syrup from early runs is called Frenchman’s Blonde. It has a very delicate Maple taste. Frenchman Blonde is more expensive than darker grades of syrup and is used for candy making. Darker runs have a stronger Maple taste, so I actually like darker syrup better. I seem to be in the minority of sugarers about this. They generally seem to like the taste of these first runs best.

Today, when I finish this boil, I will look at the color to judge where we are in the season. It’s late for our season to have just begun. Usually we have at least one run or two in February, but not this year. Because the season is starting late, we may not get any Frenchman’s Blonde. We may move right to a darker grade syrup. I will report back in on this.

Ben is working to be able to upload photos larger than our first two microscopic sized attempts. I have a few “action shots” of sugaring to post as soon as we have figured out this glitch. In the meantime, think of me dashing in and out of the office to stoke the fire under my boiling pan. And hey, right now I am actually not in my nightgown!

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