Making Sustainable Maple Syrup in Your Own Backyard
Early Spring is a magic time in New Hampshire. The days grow warmer, but the nights stay cold. We wake up in the morning to frost and walk the dogs in boots and hats. However, by noon, we’re barefoot and t-shirted (because 64 degrees feels tropical after 30 degrees). The maple trees, also, are energized by the Spring weather. Each day, they pump sweet sap up to their branches and each night they retreat to their winter hibernation. This is sugaring time, the only time all year when sustainable maple syrup is made.
Usually our family celebrates sugaring time with a few visits to select sugar shacks and pancake houses. Many of these sugar shacks are only open in March and April. We pig out on pancakes drenched in syrup and return home with big jugs of syrup to last all year. But last year, of course, was different. Last year we had to sit sugaring out, contenting ourselves with a masked syrup purchase at our local farm. But this year, my husband and I decided, we wouldn’t let that happen again. So, we jumped into sugaring with both feet.
Adventures in Maple Tree Tapping
Tapping maple trees isn’t hard. Finding maple trees in the winter with no tell-tale leaves to guide you is hard, however.
Finding and Tapping the Maple Trees
Luckily, my husband did his research and we trudged out into the woods with three kids and two dogs in tow to find trees. We were looking for “opposite branches, striated bark, and no leaves.” Oak trees usually hold onto a few leaves. It took us awhile, but we managed to find some that fit the bill. We measured them (trees have to be over 32 inches in circumference), and drilled holes at chest height. As an environmentalist, it felt really strange to be drilling into a tree. But tapping collects only 5% of the total sap and the trees heal quickly. After all, New Englanders have been doing this since before “New England” existed. We hammered in the “spiles” and hoped for the best.
Then, we waited. Sure enough, sap began to drip into our repurposed yogurt containers the very first warm day. What fun to collect this slightly, slightly sweet liquid! The kids enjoyed finding the trees we’d tapped each day. It was like a walk in the woods and scavenger hunt combined. They enjoyed tasting the “sugar water.” But soon the sap was dripping faster and stronger and we had to visit the trees several times a day to collect the sap. I asked friends for bigger milk jugs to replace our yogurt containers (we make our own milk, so we don’t have any). We’re two weeks in now and we’ve already collected fifteen gallons of sap. After we had ten, we realized it was time to boil.
Time for Sugaring
People who take sugaring seriously have sugar shacks to boil their syrup. We don’t have a sugar shack, but we do have a fire pit, so we got a good fire going early last Sunday morning and jerry-rigged a method for hanging our Dutch oven over the open flame. We filled the big pot with sap and waited. And waited. And waited. It turns out, it takes a long time to boil sap down to syrup. We boiled all day – from 9am to 6pm – and only managed to do five gallons, but it was a wonderful Spring day. Neighbors stopped by to try the sap and to play baseball and chat and we had a picnic lunch by the fire.
By dinner time, the sap had boiled down enough to look and smell like syrup, so I pulled it off and filtered it through a sieve. The syrup was thick and smoky and sticky sweet and wonderful. The kids tried spoonfuls right away, we all had it on pancakes the next morning, and I’ve been sneaking tastes of it all week. It’s certainly more organic tasting than the syrup we buy from friends and local farms, maybe because our toddler threw moss in it or because we cooked it too long or because our sieve isn’t particularly fine, but the satisfaction we got from doing it ourselves was the real reward in this story.
Visiting a Professional Sugaring Shack
The same week we tapped our trees, I asked my friend, Sarah Hansen, of Kearsarge Gore Farm in Warner, New Hampshire, if we could come visit their sugar shack and see how the experts do it. “Of course!” Sarah replied, “The weather is going to be A+++!” When we arrived at the farm in Warner, everyone was busy, busy, busy. “It’s like we’re coming out of hibernation”, said Sam Bower, who runs the farm with his parents, Bob Bower and Jennifer Ohler.
The weather was gorgeous. The kids were thrilled with all the mud and puddles (the Prius was not). The air was crisp and the sun was warm. As we got closer to the sap house, we could smell the sweet syrup and see the big cloud of smoke rising from the chimney. “At night, you can see hundreds of little sparks rising up into the air… it’s really beautiful,” Sam told me. Luckily, he was able to take a brief break to chat and show me around while my husband took the kids over to see the lambs (in case you’re wondering, yes, my children now want their own sheep).
Kearsarge Gore Farm
While we talked, I admired the giant woodpile (at least 50 cords), which is arguably larger than the sap house itself. They clearly hadn’t been hibernating all winter! The farm has somewhere around 2,500 taps in 2,000 plus trees with miles and miles of tubing connecting them to a giant collection tank. It certainly put our three-tree operation into perspective.
A few years ago, they were able to get a super-efficient evaporator, known as the Vortex, through a New Hampshire energy efficiency grant (“I think everyone else who got the grant got solar panels and we got an evaporator!”). The new evaporator, run on wood harvested from their own land, helps cut down on the inherent inefficiencies of syrup production. The pump system is still run on a diesel generator, even though everything else on the farm – the house, packing house, and barn – are solar-powered. They’d love to get rid of the generator, Sam says, but for now it’s the only thing powerful enough to do the job.
Inside the Sap House
Inside the sap house, it is hot and loud and smells amazing. I watched as Sam tested the syrup – “Perfect!” The syrup – my family calls it liquid gold – is luminescent. I can’t wait to pick mine up. We always buy the biggest containers we can, because we use syrup and honey for most of our sweetening needs. All the products from Kearsarge Gore Farm are certified organic, including their syrup. “Once a year someone comes and looks over everything we do here. Non-organic farms don’t have that oversight. I like customers to know we are doing things right.” The farm sells their syrup to visitors like us, and at local stores and farmers markets. They are proud of their syrup and of following a time-honored tradition. Sugaring is “New Hampshire’s oldest tradition,” says Sam, “aside from music and making love”.
Maple Syrup and Sustainability
Watching our fire burn all day on Sunday and seeing the giant stacks of wood at Kearsarge Gore Farm, made me uneasy. Can all this really be okay for the Earth? Boiling five gallons of sap down to a jar of syrup also seemed really inefficient, even if, as my physicist husband tells me, burning wood is actually carbon neutral. But the important difference between maple syrup and sugar cane (a monocrop), as I read in this wonderful article on La Terre Noire, is that tapping trees is working with Nature, not against her. Sugaring leaves New Hampshire’s forests intact and responsibly harvesting firewood is actually beneficial to the health of the forest. Most syrup is sold locally. The containers it comes in are reusable and recyclable. The glass ones are actually really pretty as vases or to fill with soaps, lotions, or other household products.
Sustainable Maple Syrup in Your Own Backyard
What about our little family operation? I tried to keep it small and sustainable. The only new things I bought were the “spiles” (I’ve since realized I could have found them on Craiglist). We filled repurposed yogurt containers, milk jugs, and five-gallon jugs we had for our emergency water supply. “If the world ends this month”, I told my husband, “we’ll just have to drink sap instead of water.” We boiled in our Dutch oven and used logs and old cinder blocks to hold up the boiling operation. Our firewood is recently fallen “trash wood” from the forest floor. At Kearsarge Gore Farm, they have the Vortex, and at bigger operations, farmers use reverse osmosis machines to cut down on the burn time (no, I have no idea what “reverse osmosis” is, but you should definitely do an Ecosia search for it if you want to learn more).
If we do keep this up, I think we’ll borrow, rent or share a reverse osmosis setup and a small wood-burning evaporator. For now, three taps and a couple days by the fire sound perfect. We still bought a giant jug of syrup from Kearsarge Gore Farm. A couple jars of smoky liquid gold just ain’t gonna cut it for this New Hampshire family.
About the Author
Hannah MacBride and her good friend, Rachel Gourvitz, blog about sustainable living and eco-news at GreenLifeNH.com. Hannah and her husband grew up in New Hampshire and wouldn’t touch fake “syrup” with a ten-foot pole. Her three children are being spoiled rotten, feasting on homemade sourdough, homegrown vegetables, and now sustainable maple syrup straight from the backyard. Next up, chickens! Then bees! This back-to-the-land stuff gets addicting.