by Susanne Smith of Valrico, FL
It’s the sweet smell of Spring that drew me to the Hedmark Farm in Fence, Wisconsin. An immense cloud of steam billows from the sugar shack. It’s sugarin’ time! Here Milan and Vita Hedmark, along with their whole family (three generations), work to drill holes for 1,100 taps. They tapped a week before the sap ran this year. Sugarin’ requires a combination of freezing nights and warm days to start the sap flowing.
This wonderful craft was taught to 78 year old Milan by his father. At his side, stoking the fires, skimming impurities from the boiling sap and bottling the syrup is his wife, Vita.
Milan still uses his horse team and a sleigh to gather the sap. This enables him to have one less “helper” because his team responds to voice commands. They move ahead and stop at Milan’s direction. So gathering the sweet sap is made easier by Molly and Elenor, his two bay mares.
Keeping with the old-time way of sugarin’, Milan still uses galvanized buckets with tent lids. From a layperson’s point of view, it makes his maple grove very picturesque. Not to mention watching Molly and Elenor with the sleigh gliding over the snow.
As I tag along on this Spring day, we head back to the sugar shack once they’ve filled the 300 gallon gathering tank on the sleigh. Near the sugar house I notice stacks of elm and poplar. Milan tells me it’s what he uses because there are no coals, not like maple – “too many coals, no draft, not good.”
The sugar house is a long building to hold the evaporator, with steam vents in the roof, as long as the evaporator inside. The evaporator must be ‘housed’ so the cold wind doesn’t cool the fire.
The 300 gallons of sap in the evaporator usually takes 2-1/2 to 3 hours to boil down. They boil down approximately 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup.
When each batch has been tested with a sugaring thermometer, it is strained with a felt and flannel liner. Then it is canned. Temperature is important because if it’s too hot it will sugar. Not hot enough, it will spoil. Weather also effects color and sweetness, so each season varies. “When is the season over?” I ask. Milan points to a maple tree outside the sugar shack. “The season is over when that tree buds out.”
But the day I spent at the Hedmark Farm comes rushing back as soon as I ladle the maple syrup on those pancakes in the morning.