Malabar Farm Maple Syrup Festival
by Arthur Bolduc of Howard, OH
If it weren’t for the maple syrup season, March could be a very long month. Too early to plow and too muddy to do much else, it’s still a great time to be outdoors. And at Malabar Farm State Park, the legacy of the late Louis Bromfield, March is Maple Syrup Festival time, a time for everybody to get together after a long winter, to renew old acquaintances and to show the new generation what tapping maple trees and boiling sap to make maple syrup is all about.
Malabar Farm, the most famous farm in the world, is today, forty years after Bromfield’s death, part of the Ohio State Parks System and maintained much as it was when Bromfield was alive and Malabar Farm was a mecca for all interested with conservation, regenerative and sustainable agriculture.
Park manager, Louis Andres, and a small staff depend largely upon volunteer help for the full and diversified calendar of near weekly events and workshops presented at Malabar Farm year round.
Starting with a Backyard Syrup Production Workshop in mid-January and followed by various bird walks and nest box shops, spring plow days, nature walks, square dancing, Ohio Heritage Days and numerous other events sponsored by knowledgeable and responsible people, there is something there for everybody interested in nature, conservation and history.
The Maple Syrup Production Workshop is followed up the first and second weekends of March (weather permitting) by the Maple Syrup Festival.
This is the first event of the year for the Central Ohio Draft Horse Association (CODHA) volunteers who provide teams and wagons for shuttle service around the farm for many of the quarter million people who visit the 970 acre farm park annually.
For the man or beast that has grown physically soft over the winter, the maple syrup season is spring training to get both back into shape.
It is estimated that there are about 300 volunteers helping out in various official and unofficial capacities at Malabar Farm. It’s hard to say exactly. The draft horse club may field a dozen teams for an event, and there could be a couple of dozen or more uncounted helpers along to assist visitors on and off the wagons, relieve teamsters and to help out and socialize in general.
The senior CODHA members remember when Malabar Farm was a focal point in American agriculture and people from all walks of life and parts of the world came to see what an Ohio farm boy who wrote a few books and won a Pulitzer Prize was doing with deep tillage and grass farming, among other things.
Some of them knew Bromfield and remember him and his blue roan team of Percheron mares, Sylvia and Queen. Bromfield loved horses and, like his dogs, became very attached to them. In Pleasant Valley he wrote, “Gathering sap is a job that only horses can do and for making money only horses should draw the big sled with the 300 gallon tank. A tractor would be a desecration.”
The CODHA teams and teamsters maintain an agricultural link with the past at Malabar. They are part of the legend that was started back in ’43 when Bromfield wrote Pleasant Valley, the first of four books about his farm.
Pleasant Valley went through at least seventeen editions that I know of and is still in print and available at the Malabar gift shop along with his three other books, Malabar Farm, Out of the Earth and From My Experience.
The Heritage, a biography by his youngest daughter, Ellen Bromfield Geld, a pretty good writer in her own right, is also available.
In his book, Pleasant Valley, Bromfield writes of the original sugar camp that came with the farm when he bought it in 1940. It was reminiscent of the one his grandfather had owned when he was a boy. The Agri-business people told him that it wouldn’t be profitable for him to run it. They told him it would be cheaper, time and labor wise, for him to buy maple syrup off the farm. And he responded just as he had when they told him he could buy fruits, vegetables, eggs and poultry, etc., cheaper off the farm than he could raise it himself. He ignored the bean counters and produced some pretty good (better than he could have bought) maple syrup and sugar at a time when white cane sugar was rationed and over priced.
The Agri-businessmen didn’t understand culture and tradition, or Bromfield. Too many had never made maple syrup in a drafty old board and batten shed, or stayed up late exchanging stories about local characters – some that became legends – and local history that could have enriched their lives. Or learned to appreciate what really went into making maple syrup, and to witness the commitment in time and skill that honest, hard working people were willing to make to produce a superior product from nature’s renewable resources without exploiting nature or their fellow man’s labor. Their products were tangible works of culinary art, and their knowledge of nature’s secrets was science at its best.
Bromfield cared for people and he needed them. He was a social animal. He needed people for their company, their strength, at least the interesting people who fed and made the world go round, and they were grist for his mill. He didn’t need anybody to promote his writing career. For he knew well enough that if you can write, you don’t need anybody pulling strings for you; and if you can’t, Christ himself can’t help you. But he did learn much of his craft from the many writers, critics and assorted actors and artists he associated with. And he had his ducks in a row. He knew the true worth of a person, and he knew that many of the show dogs he entertained couldn’t earn their keep in the field. In the sugar shack, what you saw is what you got. He was comfortable and at home with the people he worked with there.
The Native Americans, the Indians, taught the first white settlers how to tap maple trees and make maple syrup and sugar. With only primitive tools, maple syrup production for the Indians must have been an arduous task. They slashed the trees to start the sap running and then caught it in birch bark or hide containers. Their sap boiling kettle was nothing more than a hollowed out log into which they poured the sap and then dumped in hot rocks heated in an open fire. It was a slow process, and eventually they were rewarded for their perseverance with a sweet syrup that must have been loaded with ash, soot and grit.
The more affluent white settlers had the luxury of iron pots and axes with which to cut firewood. And they had wood augers with which to drill shallow holes into the hard maple trees for the sap spiles.
With a series of iron pots, it was a simple task of boiling the sap in a large pot until it condensed and then into progressively smaller pots for finishing into syrup or maple sugar.
With a cloth or other fabric they were able to strain impurities from the finished product. A quantum leap in maple syrup production.
But without sterile, air-tight storage containers, maple syrup was probably just a seasonal luxury.
Today with modern tools, containers and production methods, quality maple syrup production is more efficient. But the large stainless steel, thermostatically controlled evaporators, syrup presses, plastic sap gathering hoses and the 101 gadgets that go with mass production of maple syrup is expensive and people still have to work hard to produce enough maple syrup to cover expenses and earn a profit.
With all their technology, producers are still at the mercy of the weather. For the dozen states in the northeast that produce the bulk of the maple sugar products in this country, weather is the key to their success. Freezing nights and thawing days are required to set the sap flowing in the maple trees. Just how this phenomena happens, nobody seems to know exactly. But it is believed that carbon dioxide gas has something to do with it. C0-2 expands in the heat of day and exerts pressure in the tree, and contracts in the cool of the evenings to relieve pressure.
Of the maple syrup producing states, Vermont is the perennial top producer with New York a poor second and Maine a bad third. Ohio and Wisconsin dispute fourth place with New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut finishing in that order. A good year for them in 1996 brought in about $42 million followed by a poor year in 1997 that saw the gross cut to $30 million. Few people rely solely on maple syrup production for their livelihood.
Brian Banbury (a name more familiar to the Ohio sheep industry than the maple sugar producers) of the State Park Service conducts the Backyard Syrup Production Workshop in the old Pugh cabin near the sugar shack at Malabar. He does a good job, in fact, people come back to repeat the course and they bring pictures and videos of their success. These alumnus participate and contribute to Brian’s presentation and the group linger and talk far beyond the time allotted to the workshop, just like when the boss was there.
The sugar camp is open to the public the first and second weekends of March. The shack has been updated somewhat over the years and stands today a modern, perhaps, midsize maple syrup producing operation. Malabar Farm is not in the business of producing maple syrup so much as they are a teaching and demonstration facility, but they do operate on a professional level. Profits are returned to the operation of the farm.
Along with the modern syrup producing operation, skilled volunteers give demonstrations of more primitive methods used in colonial times by both Native Americans and Colonists.
The Malabar Farm Maple Syrup Festival is an opportunity for the new generation to discover the heritage of true maple syrup production and to sample the unadulterated product at its best. An opportunity to ride on hay wagons drawn by working draft horses and mules and to talk with teamsters and farmers, who still find a place on their farms for these useful working partners. And after they have toured the rest of the farm and learned a little bit about regenerative and sustainable agriculture, many return to take part in the Backyard Syrup Production Workshops and experience the satisfaction of producing their own maple syrup, even if it’s only a gallon and from one tree, and they become part of the legend that is Malabar Farm.