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

AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT STATION

University of Vermont and State Agricultural College

Burlington, Vermont

MARCH 1956

β€”

BULLETIN 587

Happy Tapping!

some thoughts, Nathan

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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


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