The artisanal maple producer is passionate and thrills his associates by producing very tasty excellent quality syrup. He never stops innovating in the transformation of maple products and in the use of maple syrup in the kitchen to embellish various dishes. How many maple producers still today collect maple sap in a bucket or with horses or by gravity? Very few you say… well, think again, there are hundreds and hundreds.
Once upon a time, I asked my country cousin, Murray Clapp, “Why do you make maple syrup?” He shrugged and said positively, “How would you know it’s spring if you didn’t make maple syrup?” Growing up in Western Massachusetts I always new it was spring when my parents took my sisters and me to the Hilltowns to breathe the maple scented air, watch the sugaring process and taste the unique, sweet syrup.
A few years ago we switched from tapping our maple trees with metal taps to wooden taps we make. There comes with it a feeling of independence and self-provision. Most of the elderberry canes we cut come from a thicket in the very woods we tap the maples. There are more canes every year, availing themselves in case we need replacements for taps that broke. Be sure to only select canes with live wood. Don’t worry about the plants, elderberries are very tenacious and will grow more canes to replace the ones you cut.
When you reach for a bottle or jug of maple syrup there’s nothing quite like the price tag attached to it to make you think twice. It is worth it, no doubt, in more than one way. But if you have maples in your neck of the woods there is no reason why you can’t make it yourself. It is always best to start small with a process that is easy for you to handle and increase each year as you gain experience and confidence. There are also lots of great books out there with guidelines, facts and information of all kinds. Just don’t let yourself become overwhelmed with it. Sometimes more information isn’t more, it’s too much.
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.
Years ago all sap was gathered from the buckets on the trees and poured into wooden tanks on sleds pulled by oxen or horses. Nowadays many farms use tractors; however, there are still quite a few places where animals are preferred. To honor that tradition the Meachams have invited members of the Western Mass. 4-H Ox Teamsters Association to be on hand for the day. Those who could come are here with their steers and carts giving rides around the farm. As we sink into the hay cushion in our cart we get the feeling of warmth even though we see not only our breath in the breeze but also the breath of each yoked animal.
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.
It’s fascinating to learn how the technology of sugaring is always adapting and reforming the methods and practices from over 200 years ago. However, given all the technological advancements and re-workings, the process is pretty much the same regardless of the industry’s technology. You cut into a sugar maple, put some sort of collection vessel beneath it, and when the warm days and cool nights in late February and early March arrive, the sap flows. You collect, you extract water and this incredible natural ingredient, preserved by its own sugar content, is ready for you to eat.
In the Spring of 1997 we got a notion to do a little syrup making. We had done a little sugaring with our neighbor back in 1992 or 1993, can’t remember. But anyway, we used a cast-iron kettle over a fire. Needless to say it was slow. So when 1997 came on the scene, we figured it was about time to have some more of that tasty homemade stuff, so we made us a little nicer setup.
There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington. Five syrup producing species of maples are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Box Elder and the Big-leaf Maple are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.
Maple sirup and sugar are produced during a period of from four to six weeks in the early spring and interfere but little with the other farm crops. The sugar season usually forms a welcome break between the comparative idleness of winter and the early spring plowing. It comes at a time when little else can be done. But after considering the long hours of tending the evaporator and the work of gathering the sap, many a man has asked himself if the results are worth the effort. Most of the producers of maple sirup and sugar tap less than 500 trees. Considered from the point of view of the bookkeeper who figures overhead, depreciation, labor costs, and interest, very few of these small groves can show a profit. But is there anything that can be done to better advantage at that season of the year? Faced with such a question, nearly every farmer who owns a maple grove will decide that sugar and sirup making is worth while.