How we got into sugaring.
In 1997, we began hanging a few jugs on some of the maple trees close to the house.
The following year we went a little deeper into the woods and tapped more trees. By 1999
we were tapping over 50 trees and boiling sap into syrup became a very long process over the wood
cookstove. We were able to stop buying syrup—we have a three-gallon-a-year habit—as
we had plenty of our own syrup now for coffee, pancakes and baking. In spite of all the work,
having enough of our own syrup was a nice feeling.
But carrying the jugs into the house and boiling the sap over a stove was a lot of
work. So, in 2000, we made the leap and bought a real wood fired maple evaporator, built a
crude sugar house in the woods, and tapped around 60 trees. We also began the move toward a
tubing system that eliminated having to visit each tree twice a day to collect the sap.
Now we began to produce enough syrup that we could give it away as holiday presents,
have all we could use, and even have some left over by the time sugaring season began again.
By 2001, we found quite a few more maples on a wooded hillside, so we ran tubing to
those also. But since that tubing no longer ended at the old sugar house, we had to lug
more than half our sap in 5 gallon jerry cans several hundred feet to the evaporator.
And that meant we had to plow the woods road first or trudge through deep snow.
In 2002 we ran a new tap line bringing our total taps to over 120. In addition we
began moving toward building a new sugarhouse downhill from all the tapped maples, started
running mainlines to the site, and began thinning the woods in preparation for tapping
more trees. We also started selling our syrup by the quart at the farmers' markets. We
sold out by early September. By 2004 we had 250 taps; by 2005, 290. In 2011, we have over 400 taps out. As the smaller maple trees in the sugarbush grow large enough to tap, and as we clear out around ever more maple trees, each year we add a few more taps to the system.
We tap any maple of sufficient diameter (11 inches and up), since we do not have an abundance of large rock
(sugar) maples. Many of our taps are in red (swamp) maples, which yield a bit less sugar in the sap
and therefor take longer to boil down, making a darker syrup. But we are not trying to make Fancy
Grade A Light syrup. We are producing homegrown backyard dark maple syrup with a flavor you
can taste, a flavor that brings you back for more whether you use it in coffee, on cereal or
ice cream, in baking or on blueberry pancakes.
How it works for a vegetable farmer to do sugaring.
Sugaring, happening as it does in the late winter and early spring, dovetails nicely
with other farm work. The greenhouse beds get planted on a sunny mid-winter day, but there
is little else to do there but for an occassional watering. The maple season is almost
over by the time we fire up the greenhouse stoves in late March.
We begin tapping in early February in hopes of catching a few days of good sap run
that generally occurs most seasons before the main run begins in ernest. Since the lines
and taps are all still attached to the trees from last year, all that is required is to
drill the new holes and pound in the taps. Then we keep an eye on the downhill end of
the main line, waiting for the sap to begin flowing into the storage tanks at the
sugarhouse on the first good sap day.
March is the month we are boiling almost every day, often starting at dawn and
continuing until late in the evening, when we don our headlamp for one last trip to the
evaporator down in the dark woods, stoking the firebox with hardwood to keep the boil
going into the wee hours. At the peak of the season the days are a continuous blur of
stoking the fire, skimming the foam off the boiling sap, drawing off sap to be finished
off indoors, filtering and bottling, hauling in more sap, refilling the evaporator,
splitting wood and occassionally checking the lines for breaks or sags. And this is
about when the great spring thaw begins, so the icing on the cake is that much of this
is done in slush.
There is usually a week or so of keeping three fires stoked simultaneously (house,
greenhouse and evaporator), but by early April the maple work is slowing considerably.
Now we are boiling only once every two or three days for less than half a day. This is the
time for splitting and stacking next year's sugar wood, and perhaps some thinning of the
sugarbush. Finally at the end of the season the last big chore is to pull and plug the
taps and flush the lines with a weak bleach solution.
In November we are once again hauling seasoned wood to the sugarhouse, cutting, splitting and
stacking it until the sugarhouse can hold no more. By late January we are listening to the weather
in hopes of tapping out before the deep snow arrives.
A word about jug systems
Most casual or hobby sugaring enthusiasts start out with a jug system to collect
maple sap. Some use gallon milk jugs, which, tho hard to clean, are readily available.
Some hang these from the spile with a hook, others pierce the upper side of the jug with
the spile. With a jug system, it is important to design things so that the jugs won't
blow off in the wind and yet the removal and reattachment of the jugs is a quick and
efficient process, as you will find yourself doing it hundreds of times during a season.
Some folks use a tubing tap and a 5 foot piece of tubing going through the top of a
5 gallon pail. We don't like this system for two reasons. One is that there is a
tendency to leave the sap too long if the sap isn't running fast and it takes a few days
to fill the pail. On warm spring days this allows the sap to sour, producing an inferior
syrup. The other is that if the pail is full, only two can be carried, and this is
awkward when the snow is deep. If these two problems could be avoided, I suppose this
might be an acceptable system.
Altho we are now primarily on tubing, the few jugs we use are 1 gallon Gatoraid or
similar clear plastic juice bottles with a handy carrying handle, readily available in
quantity from any redemption center. At first, the taps were whatever we could get ahold of,
mostly modern steel spiles with hooks. Eventually we have moved to the same blue plastic
spiles we use in the tubing collection system. On about thirty of the outlying trees we still hang jugs on
these plastic spiles with hooks made from 6 inch pieces of coathanger wire with a loop on one
end to go over the spile and a hook on the other to hold the jug handle. (See photo at right.) A short 4-6 inch
scrap of tubing assures all the sap dripping from the tap goes into the jug. We removed the
labels from the jugs and store them for a time when a jug handle finally breaks or when the dogs find
that a blown off jug is a good chew toy. Then we simply tape the label back onto the jug and
get 5¢ back at the redemption center.
Visit us during sugaring
On almost any sunny day in March, when the nights have been cold and the days are above
freezing, the sap will be flowing and we will be boiling. Drive into the farm yard, and
if you do not see anyone, honk your horn and we'll soon be there. Wear your boots and
warm clothing. The hike down to the sugar house is about a quarter mile over a plowed
woods road through maple, spruce and hemlock woods. The maple collection lines extend
uphill into the sugarbush about 1000 feet in five different directions.
We do not advertise as part of Maine Maple Sunday, as we are a very small operation
by industry standards and we would rather limit our tours to people who already know us
or who would like to start sugaring at or near our scale.
During sugaring I often like to take a break to talk to a visitor and walk the bush. Come
watch the boil, lean your head over the evaporator, and smell the maple steam!
This is why your off-season storage of your taps and spare tubing should always be away from insects. Here you can see a two spiles and a tee that the orchard mason bees discovered make great places to lay their eggs and which they then pack with mud. Two have hatched already and one has not. They are great pollinators, but what a pain in the spile! Now I know the hole size they like, I shall hang blocks of wood here and there that are drilled with lots of holes just for them. And I'll now store my spiles out of their reach!
More pix of the 2005 season here!
The Sugarhouse Trail.
The First Sugarhouse, now used for firewood storage.
Approaching the new sugarouse. The trail is
plowed after every snow. The start of next year's firewood is stacked on the left.
The New Sugarhouse, built December, 2002. Pole frame construction
covered with old greenhouse plastic. Floor and roof are from recycled lumber.
Here's how we hang our jugs on home made hooks
fashioned from clotheshanger wire. Altho 98% of our bush is on tubing, we still hang jugs on a few of the trees next to
the trail. The hooks are basically a long-waisted S-hook with a 90 degree twist between top and bottom
hooks. This whole setup costs about 50 cents.
The Evaporator and Arch (firebox). The essential investment
in any sugaring operation. This is the smallest model that Waterloo-Small makes, roughly
24"x36"x8" and can boil about 15 gallons of sap at a time.
Where the collection lines end at the
Sugarhouse. Both blue and black half-inch main lines collect sap from dozens of smaller lines
uphill and hundreds of feet away, then gravity feed into jugs to just outside the sugarhouse.
On winter evenings, especially when there is a moon, making the trek out into the dark cold to the sugarhouse for the
night's last stoke, squeaking the snow on the trail with each step, I am reminded how glad I
am that most of my jobs aren't indoors. The dogs excitedly join me for a quick jaunt outside, follow
along beside the moonshadowed trail, patiently wait as I tend the evaporator fire,
and just as eagerly follow me back to the house to jump onto the bed for the night. I ask
myself, "What travel agency could offer this?"