Tap, Tap, Tap – Maple Syrup Time!

Over the last several years the boys and I have learned to enjoy the debut of spring by working in the brisk sunshine over a hot fire and the warm, sweet steam of boiling maple sap! All of the restless knots of winter work themselves out in the most marvelous of ways – physical labor in God’s creation…and a sweet reward at the end. : )

Maple syrup making is one of a few unique ventures in which only those of us who are foolish enough to live in the sub-arctic northern hemisphere can participate. Of course, if you live in Vermont, up-state New York, Maine, or (cue angelic choir music) Canada you can claim all superiority and expertise in the art of making maple syrup. In Michigan, though, there is still plenty of maple sap to go around and plenty of cold nights and vacillating spring days to bring the sap to our buckets. It isn’t uncommon for neighbors to drive down our muddied road and see kids slurping sap tubes from ancient maple trees like little fairies at a forest soda fountain : )

While I’m not going to go into the detail of a how-to for making maple syrup – YouTube has that covered with about 400,000 video tutorials (which is where I learned) – I thought it’d be fun to share some lessons-learned for those of you who may be curious to try your hand at robbing nature of it’s second-best golden nectar (first-best is found here).

Hmm…I think that the first lesson is:

1. It’s OK to Start Small – that’s good news! If you’ve got a couple of Maple trees that you’ve been harboring a grudge against while you splurt Aunt Jemima on your waffles some mornings, then put an end to it! Grab the following, and you’ll be well on your way:

  1. a bucket, washed-out milk jug, etc

  2. drill & drill bit

  3. Spile (OK, gonna have to buy some of these)

  4. hammer

  5. plastic tubing (best price around!)

  6. (whole kit found on Amazon, yay!)

2. Be Prepared

Last year I was caught off-guard by an early warm-up in the weather. This got the sap flowing early, and I missed about 2 weeks of sap collection. Don’t wait to gather your supplies. Do it NOW for next season, then when the temps get to 40s in the daytime and still below freezing at night – Tap Those Trees!

3. Surface Area Matters!

Our first year, we used a large stock pot to boil the sap in over a wood fire. It was a large container, but the problem was the diameter. The goal is to get as much water to evaporate out of the sap as quickly as possible. For that, you need as much surface area as possible. After spending days watching a boiling pot…boil. I was finally able to upgrade to a large stainless steel water bath (think Old Country Buffet cast-off). This pan is about 5 inches deep and has about 11 square feet of surface area! This simple change in equipment has allowed us to cut our boiling time down by 75% – effectively quadrupling our syrup production in equal time.

4. Feed Your Fire

As I noted above, making maple syrup is all about time. That’s where the cost comes from, not the equipment or supplies, but how much of life someone has had to give to the product! Unless you’re retired, a trust fund baby, or a recent lotto winner, you probably don’t have unlimited time to boil down sap into the liquid gold you’re going for. In addition to a large surface area to enable evaporation, another key to speed up the process is a consistent, hot, efficient fire. I’ve used a smoke stack (6″ galvanized duct pipe) to keep oxygen drawing through the fire and as much hard wood as I can get a hold of.

5. Oh My Nitre!

Nitre and Sugar Sand are symbiotic evil twin gremlins of the sugar shack (there’s a picture for ya). Both of these substances present as a result of boiling the natural minerals found in the wonderful Maple sap. Nitre will show up in flakes on the evaporator pan (think calcium deposits). Sugar sand will appear as the syrup cools after bottling. You may have seen sugar sand as a haze suspended in, or at the bottom of, bottles of finished syrup. So how do you combat these gremlins? Well, the professionals force their syrup through layers and layers of pressurized filters. That’s a bit out of my league, and I’m still fighting this battle. As of this season, I’m filtering our sap right out of the evaporator, then filtering again before bottling. I’m also trying to be careful not to bring the syrup to boil any more than I have to while finishing it. Boiling will always create more sugar sand.

6. The Art of Finishing Well

There’s life application in making maple syrup?? Yep! but isn’t that true in pretty much everything worth endeavoring? While the bulk of the work of maple syrup production is on the front-end – tapping, collecting, hauling, and of course boiling the sap from 4-6% sugar content to around 60% sugar content; the real art of syrup making comes in the last few moments. The sap needs to be watchfully brought to 219 degrees & 66-68 brix (density). After struggling the first two years to get our syrup to be the best consistency, I finally bought a hydrometer. Using the hydrometer to measure the density (brix) of the syrup, as well as making sure I am using a calibrated thermometer have been key to achieving that lovely, palette-coating consistency of high-quality maple syrup.

Check out this awesome illustration of the evaporation process which will turn your sap into high-value maple syrup!

“Variation in Sugar Content of Maple Sap” by Fred Taylor


University of Vermont and State Agricultural College

Burlington, Vermont

MARCH 1956


Happy Tapping!

some thoughts, Nathan

Our Very Own Holly

Who remembers when Scrooge wakes up thrilled by Christmas morning, calls to the boy in the street to buy him the biggest goose at the market, then heads to Tiny Tim’s house to surprise the little family with the most opulent celebration they had ever experienced? Well, it wasn’t a goose that showed up on our doorstep last week, but maybe the next best thing – a Christmas PIG!?

Meet Holly, Larry’s next best friend (if the sheep will allow it)! A farmer from around the corner, who operates a petting farm (with a fantastic business model – it’s mobile. He brings the farm to you, and his 20 ft. trailer actually looks like a miniature barn and silo!), apparently wanted to relocate his little ‘wilbur’ after the petting farm season wrapped up. So, what a blessing, we are now the proud (and rather clueless) owners of our very own 3 month old Yorkshire sow.

Last Monday was welcoming day at First Fruits for Holly. I raced home from work, threw some chore clothes on, and helped our farmer friend get Holly acquainted with her new pen in the barn. With little time to prepare, we just converted the old sheep pen into Holly’s pen. Alexander and William were a big help in getting the pen to work. While sheep often get a bad wrap for being “dumb”, it is actually quite nice for the shepherd – sheep stay put. They stay in a pen with little complaint. Pigs are a different story. Our temporary home for Holly (now 17 pounds) will do for a little while – we took some salvaged galvanized roofing sheets that were laying around, set them on edge on the barn floor, and screwed them to the inside of the pen. Now Holly can root around all she wants, she can squirm and squeal, but she won’t be able to get out of this pen for a while. This is definitely a temporary measure, though. At a weight gain of 15 pound per week. Holly will need a permanent pen with both physical and mental (electric) barriers pretty soon. Right now we’re thinking that, if we get a break in the weather, we can run some quick fencing around the garden plot and let Holly till the garden for us until planting season. I scored an electric fence charger off of Craigslist (the go-to farm supply store). I have the fencing and posts – now just for some sun to melt the foot of snow (my mental barrier)!

And, really, this is how so much in life happens. There is certainly virtue in planning and preparing, but sometimes you just have to ‘go with it’. You can probably think back to twists and turns of your own family’s that follow this rule. Sometimes you figure things out along the way, together. And those are the real-life adventures – the best times and the best memories that your family creates and owns. I have a feeling that the “…remember when you and Mom…” and the “…I can’t believe we ever…” conversations that Damaris and I look forward to having around cups of coffee with our kids many years from today will now include stories of Holly, our Christmas pig.

some thoughts, Nathan

Farmhouse Biscuits

Not too long ago, I had 5 babies. The oldest had just turned 7 and the baby was a very unhappy newborn. I felt that my world was upside down as I struggled to find time for the most daily basics. It was during those long weary days, that I dreamed of making a batch of biscuits. There was something so fulfilling about old-fashioned biscuits – If I could make a batch of well-raised biscuits, then all would be well with the world. I still get the same soul-satisfying feeling when I bring these biscuits, tall and tender, to the table. This farmhouse biscuit recipe is unbelievably easy to make and more than worth your time. In less than 20 minutes, you’ll enjoy golden, slightly crunchy tops and bottoms with a soft inside crumb. No kneading, no rising, and only four ingredients! This is the only biscuit recipe that my family requests again and again. When you make them, there will be no crumbs left, and everyone will feel all warm and cozy inside! Last night, as I dusted the rolling pin, I thought with pleasure of the days gone by, when the smells of the kitchen’s goods called everyone in from the fields. Our days aren’t quite like that, but we still think that our farmhouse kitchen sighs a familiar sigh when a piping hot batch of these biscuits comes out of the oven.

This farmhouse biscuit recipe is adapted from this original that I fell in-love with. Aren’t there so many ways to enjoy a biscuit? These are some of our family’s favorite ways:

-paired with soup or stew

-for afternoon tea with a pat of butter and a bit of jam

-makes a hearty breakfast with sausage gravy

-strawberry shortcakes (add 1/4 cup or less of sugar to the dough)

Farmhouse Biscuits

  • 2 cup flour

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream + a little more for lightly brushing the tops

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients and add the cream incorporating gently with a fork. No need to knead! With your hand, make a ball of your dough trying to gather all the little bits left on the sides of the bowl. I avoid a countertop mess by rolling them out on the parchment they’ll bake on. Dust your cut parchment and a rolling pin with a little flour (the original recipe has a very quick way to just shape the dough with your hands and cut rectangles into it, which will be the individual biscuits- works great!). Cut out (an upside down drinking glass does the job!) your favorite shape. Don’t be shy about combining the last bits of scrap dough pieces into one more biscuit! Arrange them on the parchment, brush their tops with a little heavy cream, and bake, on the oven’s middle rack, for 15 minutes or until tops are slightly golden.

I can’t wait for you to try them!

with love. Damaris

Meet Larry

A couple of weeks ago, we welcomed a new addition to our farm. Meet Larry the Llama!

For Nathan and the boys, his name was a no-brainer. Eva and I suggested Lawrence, though, isn’t that far more sophisticated? But I realize that’s not what we’re going for here, so – Larry it is!

To be honest, Nathan and I both have always thought llamas to be…well…ugly. We didn’t know the difference between alpacas and llamas, and we thought, frankly they just look like bug-eyed, goofy-haired, skinny camels. Well, turns out llamas are in the camelid family and cousins to the smaller alpacas, which are bred for the finer fibers in their fleece. Llamas are a domesticated animal native of the Andes Mountains of Peru. They can pack (carry) 30% of their body weight, are very hardy, and surprisingly low-maintenance.

Our Larry is quirky and independent. He’s attentive to our small flock of sheep and in constant alertness. He seems to be happy and at home grazing out in the pasture.

So…why a llama?? Ever since we’ve had sheep, we couldn’t leave them in the pasture over night due to coyote predators. Eva would let them out of the barn in the morning, and Nathan would put them in at night. This was not what we wanted for the long-term. It’s unnecessary work (who needs that?!) and unnecessary cost (ditto!) in feed and bedding. The way to fix the problem is get the sheep a babysitter…err guardian.

We considered several options for guardian animals. We narrowed it down to a dog or a llama. The down side of using a dog is that it would need dog food fed separate from the sheep, whereas llamas eat the grass/hay just the same as sheep. Also, while certain breeds of dogs can make great livestock guardians, they can be noisy during the night. So there you have it, process of elimination is effective in decision making- ha!

Timing was key – Nathan had an out-of-state work conference coming up, and we wanted to go with him to make it a family trip. Just in the eleventh hour, Nathan found a young male llama a half-hour away ready to join our farm! We tried to coordinate a delivery, but Nathan ended up renting a U-Haul trailer and picking up the llama after work. We introduced him to the sheep three days before our trip! We didn’t even know how he and the sheep would get along, but it went really smoothly, considering.

Now that Larry the llama has been here a few weeks, he really is a great guard animal and a wonderful addition to our farm! He’s bonded well with his little flock…now to bond with us…eek! More to come, I’m sure!

with love. Damaris

Fluffy Bottoms

What a joy to welcome new children to the farm. Little fluffy silly ones!

A week or so ago the boys and I brought 2 ewes and 2 ewe lambs to take up home in our pasture and barn. They’ve been getting to know every nibble and cranny of the place since. As soon as we unloaded them, they buried themselves muzzle-deep in timothy grass, alfalfa, and clover! Now, anytime that Damaris doesn’t know where the little girls ran off to, or she hasn’t heard from Eva in a while – sure enough, we look down into the pasture. Tiny feet are sweeping along the tall grass chasing bleating sheep in front of them. If it was simply an exercise plan we were after, this would be it ;

By our calculation, it has been something like 50 years since this farm has hosted any livestock. From what we’ve been able to gather, this farm once ran cows, pigs, and horses. The barn has been empty for a long time (OK, not really empty…you wouldn’t believe the amount of bat guano [poop], scrap lumber, and deteriorating clutter we’ve had to clear out!). It’s fun to bring some life back to it, and work it with purpose again.

Of course, we are complete noobs when it comes to animal husbandry. The first couple of evenings of having the sheep were spent with the whole troop chasing and calling, calling and chasing the sheep through the pasture to get them into the barn. Talk about exercise!

Two days after we got our sheep, I let them out of the barn and into the pasture around 6:30 in the morning. Chore done. Dust off my hands. Hop into the truck. Off to work I go.

Damaris was down in the kitchen with our early riser (the only one), Providence, and saw me drive down the driveway. At that same moment she hears Providence, looking out the back window, clap her hands and exclaim: “Oh, Sheep!” It only took Damaris a moment to realize that the lovely idea of our daughter seeing sheep in the morning was not so lovely if they could be seen from the back window – the sheep were out! It was a jail break!

Thankfully the sheep let themselves be lured back into their stall with some tempting treats and didn’t take advantage of the countryside open to explore all around them.

It’s been almost two weeks now, and things are settling down. Eva has found her new joy of playing Little Bo Peep. She is up and out of the house each morning visiting the lambs and ewes and letting them into the pasture. She slips away at dusk and tells them all ‘goodnight’ as she give them treats and closes them in their stall. It’s so much fun to see them warm up to the kids now in their pasture and become a part of our little farm life.

I’m sure there will be more mishaps and hyjinks as we figure out this flock…and as the flock figures out just how clueless of shepherds we are! Still in the unknown for us is breeding (two ewes are ready to be bred this Fall), lambing in the Spring, meat sales, and milking! Stay tuned!

a thought, Nathan

Fresh Mozzarella Orzo Salad

I came in this morning from the garden with handfuls of grape tomatoes that were hanging heavy from tender branches. If you come to our house, you’ll see green tomatoes lining the kitchen window sills. Every summer around this time, the tomatoes get heavy and drop without ripening, so we put them on the window sills until they turn red. Sometimes we’ve breaded and fried green tomatoes for a delicious dinner side. Have you heard of fried green tomatoes? Great with homemade ranch!I

On to this new recipe that I’m so excited to share! I’ve already told a couple people about it, because it’s just that good! The orzo is light and the grape tomatoes are the sweetest they’ll be all year. The cucumbers are fresh and crunchy, and if you have a garden, they may be abundant these days. Of course, the star of the show is the fresh mozzarella. I opened the tub and, let’s be honest, I could eat all the creamy, bite-sized balls! Any grocery store should carry them. Mine were from Trader Joe’s. I picked parsley to add to the salad, too because it has a mellow flavor, and our herb patch always has a robust amount of it.

Wouldn’t you agree that most pasta salads taste better when made ahead? I made this Fresh Mozzarella Orzo Salad this morning, and that kept my kitchen cool. Tonight, Nathan grilled some chili-lime chicken for a satiating supper. It was so light and tasted so good! He even asked to take the salad to the office for his lunch! I can’t wait for you to try it and tell me how you liked it!


  • 1/3 extra virgin olive oil

  • 4 or 5 tablespoons of red wine vinegar

  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 pound orzo

  • 1/4 red onion, diced

  • 1 cucumber, diced (peeled, if has a tough skin)

  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved

  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella balls, drained and halved

  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped without the stems

Cook the orzo according to package directions (about 7-9 minutes in boiling salted water). Drain and rinse immediately. Chill the orzo in the fridge or on the counter until cool. Add all the ingredients to the orzo in a large serving dish. Mix the dressing and pour over the salad. Serve immediately, or later, or tomorrow! I added a little olive oil before serving because the orzo absorbs some of the dressing.

with love. Damaris

Haying Time

photo credit: Alexander
It doesn’t get much more fun than playing in the tall grass! It’s up to our waist, and it’s beautiful to see the breezes sway the meadow grass! Patches of clover, orchard, timothy, and alfalfa bend low around our legs as we walk. The little girls disappear when they leave a clearing to enter the grass adventure!

photo credit: Alexander

There is a natural cadence on a farm, and haying time marks one of them. Mid-June is a busy and exciting time when the grasses get their first cutting; the hay is harvested for fodder – livestock feed. Haying time is the season for cutting, drying and storing the hay.

Not enough grass grows year around in Michigan, and we’ll need a source of winter feed. So it is essential that we store hay for the winter. Hay is what we call nutritional grass. The best hay is a combination of grasses harvested at the beginning of the flowering stage when the grass has its rich green color, good plump leaves, and fine stems.

Afternoon is the best cutting time because the dew is off and the plant’s sugars are at its peak. The tractor cuts the grasses, and they’re left flat in windrows for a day of two. The sun dries the dew, and the tractor flips the cuttings for the sun to dry the other side. If the hay doesn’t dry well, it will mold. A rake or tedder on the back of the tractor fluffs the windrows and turns the hay to speed the drying process. Now it will be ready for bailing. Ours are the small, square bales – the type most often used by shepherds.

Soon after bailing, bales are ready to be retrieved from the fields. The smell is sweet, and the pale green bales seem to be stacked as high as the sky on the hay wagon! The boys work all morning to store it in a dry place for the winter months. Because careful storage is necessary, they will stack the bales in the darkest part of the barn. Low moisture and away from sunlight will help the hay preserve its vitamin content. Now it’s behind the great red barn doors.

For evening supper, Daddy grills enormous sausages which seem to please the hard-working boys. At night, all the kids get their sleeping bags and camp out on the long flat bed of the hay wagon!

photo credit: Alexander

with love. Damaris

Family Currents

Haying time marks exciting days at the farm! The boys worked hard to store the bales behind the great barn doors. Grilled brats and sleeping on the hay wagon helped restore some sore muscles.

Isn’t it hard to find grown up hair accessories? This week I found my new favorite! This chunky circle hair clip requires a large amount of hair for it to stay in place, but using a couple inconspicuous bobby pins does the trick. I have been wearing it everyday!

Our third-born William Dean’s 9th birthday was just a couple of days ago. He’s a birth story junkie (really, all the kids are), but we’ll spare you the details. William was born on the perfect summer Sunday. We welcomed him early in the morning on Father’s Day.

My parents visit was the most delightful event! So many fun activities planned that I will have share in a post all its own. We were sad to let them go back to Spain, but we’re thankful we don’t have to let go of the memories.

with love. Damaris