Although I have no previous maple syrup making experience, I am keen to try it out this winter. The thought of having access to a natural sweetener produced feet from my house is really appealing. I am drawn in by the fact that for a few weeks out of the year, the trees in my backyard, which I normally don’t consider a food source, are able to provide me with free flowing sugar. With this in mind, I was looking forward to attending a day long series of workshops about maple syrup making.
This past Saturday a group of maple enthusiasts gathered at the Western New York Maple School and Trade Show in Gainesville, NY. The gathering was geared towards both experienced maple producers and beginners. It included three hour long workshops, a keynote address from Patrick Hooker, the NYS Agriculture Commissioner, and a tradeshow of maple products and sugaring supplies. I was encouraged to see when I arrived at 10am, that there was a large turnout of over 100 people. Many of them seemed to have been in the maple business for a while. A few of them, like me, were maple novices.
I attended the first morning session geared toward beginners and hobbyists. The presentation was given by Steve Childs, an experienced maple producer, who works for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wyoming County. He clearly guided me through what anyone with some maple trees would need to know to make maple syrup this season.
The first thing to do is identify your maple trees. Any mature maple tree over 10 inches diameter can be tapped. Although hard maples (sugar maple and black maple) are generally associated with making syrup, all types of maple trees (including the soft maples: silver maple, Norway maple, and red maple) run sap and make fine syrup according to Steve. You may need some help identifying your maple trees, since even experienced foresters have a hard time identifying trees in the winter. The major differences between a soft and hard maple can be told by looking at the buds and leaves. Soft maple buds are round and red, and their leaves have saw-toothed edges. They are generally thought to have lower sugar content, but their sap runs earlier in the maple season. Hard maples have reddish brown buds with sharp points, and the leaves have rounded edges. Hard maples are thought to have sweeter sap, and run sap later in the season. However, the sugar content of the sap is quite variable, changing from year to year and tree to tree.
Once you have identified your maple trees, you must now wait until the weather is right for the sap to run. Sap runs when the winter days are warm while the nights still hit freezing temperatures. Generally this happens between February 10 and March 10. When the weather is right, drill a hole 7/16” in diameter, about 1.5” deep. Drill the hole at about chest height, or at a height convenient to lifting the collecting buckets. Depending on the tree diameter, you may drill more than one hole to tap. Make sure to never tap the same hole twice. (Tapping a recently tapped hole will cause yellow sap, which has an off flavor, to run.)
Once the hole has been made, gently tap a spile (or spout) into the hole. This will allow you to collect the sap. Then place a food grade container under the spout, keeping it covered so that debris doesn’t fall into the collection bucket. Once your bucket has filled with sap, remove it from the tree, and bring it back to be processed. Since maple sap is the perfect media (sugar and water) for microorganism growth, it is best to process it soon after collection. Filter the sap through a clean cloth or filter paper to remove debris. Since about 40 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup, most of your time will be spent boiling down the sap. A number of methods can be used to evaporate the water, and large scale syrup making operations use evaporators. In general you will fill a boiling pan with several inches of sap, making sure to watch that there is enough sap to keep it from scorching. Then put it over a heat source and let it evaporate until the sugar content hits 66% (this can be measured with a devise called a hydrometer). Alternatively, if the syrup is boiling at 219 degrees F, it is considered done. Once the syrup is finished it should be filtered one more time, and placed into clean containers while it is 180 degrees. Once sealed maple syrup can store for a long time without spoiling.
Another highlight of the maple school was a keynote presentation by Patrick Hooker. Patrick had grown up making maple syrup on his family’s dairy farm, expressing fond memories of it. He continues to tap some maple trees on his land today. Patrick talked affectionately of the maple syrup industry, pointing out that it receives little criticism. There are few negative environmental and health impacts from making maple syrup, and it is a tasty product in high demand. Patrick discussed New York State’s potential in the maple industry. New York has more maple trees than any state, while only less than 1% of the trees are being tapped. Currently NY ranks third in maple production behind Canada, and Vermont. Maple syrup is one of the few agricultural products where prices remain good, and demand is high. Larger corporations like Wegmans have interest in supporting local syrup. However, the number of maple producers in NY currently couldn’t meet that demand.
Patrick noted that one important way to encourage entrants into the maple industry is by demystifying the process. Those who have never made maple syrup, often think it is more challenging than it actually is. With events like today’s maple school, we can educate more people about how to make maple syrup. Another important step is to increase rights to tap maple trees. Instead of buying all the land that the maple trees are on, it could be possible to rent maple sap rights on other people’s land. One popular idea is to allow the tapping of maple trees on state land.
Wyoming County is home to a number of established maple producers who take pride in their business. I got to talk with Dottie of Merle Maple, whose family maple business has been going strong for 4 generations. They have 16,000 taps and make a number of products including cinnamon maple cream (which I sampled and loved), maple syrup, maple sugar, maple mustard, and many more. Merle Maple, along with many other maple producers will be part of the upcoming Maple Weekend. This two weekend event occurs March 20-21 and March 27-28, 2010. Maple producers will be open to the public with farm tours showcasing maple production, and other farm events. For more information about the Maple Weekend, visit mapleweekend.com.
posted by Caitlin Henzler, aspiring farmer