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WAMC Spring Series: A Look At Maple Season

Maple syrup jugs
WAMC/Pat Bradley

Warm days and cold nights are supposed to ease us into spring: slowly melt the snow and ice and let the crocuses burst into bloom.  The warm and cold cycle also triggers the sap run in maple trees and the start of sugaring season in the Northeast.  

It’s a sure sign of spring when the trees are tapped.  “There’s a little sap so we’ve got to get the spout in.”

And the sap flows into sugarhouses where evaporators get fired up to boil a sweet spring treat.
It’s maple season in the North Country.

Well... it’s supposed to be.
The Parker Family Maple Farm in West Chazy is one of the largest producers of maple syrup in New York. Michael Parker says his crew began tapping about 48,000 trees on their 1,500 acres during the last week in January. But the snow was still deep in the sugarbush by mid-March and the warm day-cold night cycle
had been inconsistent.  "We look around for the old tap holes to say away from because they don’t produce a lot of sap if you get too close to an old tap hole.  Then we drill a perfectly straight hole into the tree. Then we just put the spout into the tree and tap it in until it’s snug and there it stays until around the first of May. If you use conservative tapping you can tap this tree forever. I mean we have a sugarbush over there, and one over there, that we’ve been tapping since 1889. Thery're the originals from our family."  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeastern Regional Field Office issues annual reports on maple production. In 2014, the Northeast produced 2.75 million gallons of syrup.  The value of that crop won’t be available until June 2015, so the latest figures show $132 million in maple syrup produced nationally in 2013. Vermont produced the most, 48 percent of the nation’s supply.

In today’s high-production, high-tech farming, the traditional buckets aren’t attached to trees. Those you do see are for show and to remind people of the nostalgic traditions of maple syrup season.  Folks who live anywhere near a sugarbush are now used to seeing colored tubing encircling a tree then snaking off to the next tree, creating a spider web of plastic piping connecting hundreds or thousands of trees.

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

In the room adjacent to the evaporator where the Parkers bottle and make maple candy, there’s a widescreen monitor mapping the sugarbush’s tubing.    "These are all maps of different woods so that if this turns red we can send somebody to go find out why. This kind of farming is different than any other kind of farming. I mean any kind of farming is weather dependant but maple farming is even more.  If you don’t get your field of hay cut it’ll still be standing there tomorrow. It might not be as good. But it’s still there. Whereas every drop of sap that we miss never comes back."

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

Cornell University operates the Uihlien Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid.  Director Mike Farrell came out of the woods on snowshoes, explaining it’s the only way to move among the trees with the deep snowpack.  His crew had just finished tapping about 6,000 trees. On this day we’re lucky. It’s a warmer day and the maples offered a sap run so Farrell checks the flow at the pump house.   "What you’re hearing here is the vacuum pump. When enough sap comes in you hear the pump kick on and the pump kicks sap out of these are called the releasers to release the vacuum from the sap."
How many people are surprised that the sap looks like water?  "At least 90 percent are surprised that it’s like water. They think it’s going to be sticky or kind-of like pine sap.  Maple sap is 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar. So it’s almost pure water."
So if I stuck my hand in the container over there it wouldn’t be sticky?  "Not at all. It would just be wet."

Neil and Margarite Irving had stopped by the research center, curious if they could tap their backyard maple trees.   "I just got into schooling for environmental horticulture. So I guess I was interested in maple trees. The sweet taste of nature, the beginning of spring and the warming and the leaves coming back."

The Irvings have three maple trees in their yard in Winthrop, Massachusetts. While it’s not enough, according to Farrell, to practically boil the sap to syrup, he says there’s other options.   "From three trees you’re going to wind up with, on a good day, up to three gallons of sap. That’s more than you need for drinking. Anything that you normally cook with water you just replace with sap and everything gets a little bit sweeter and you’ve got more minerals. That’s what I would recommend to a homeowner who only has a couple trees.  If you have up to twenty or more then you can start thinking about some little type of small
evaporator to boil that sap down."

Mike Farrell also tells us that the tradition of hanging a galvanized metal bucket on a maple tree is changing as home tappers look for easier options.   "That was the standard for a very long time. There are companies selling plastic ones now. And a lot of people are actually switching to plastic bags." Bags?  "Yeah.  Basically the liner bags that go in a box of wine or a box of soda syrup. Those bags you can get for about 50 cents each, use a 20 cent spout and you can be set up with a sterile collection system for basically 70-75 cents. Aesthetically it’s not as nice, but from a cost perspective and ease of use, it’s much easier."

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

Eventually comes the first full day of spring. Technically it’s the spring vernal equinox, but it’s cold and snowing in the North Country!  It’s also Maple Weekend and sugarhouses have opened their doors to the public. Back at Parker’s Sugarhouse in West Chazy, no steam was issuing from the sugar shack as folks arrived for a pancake breakfast.  But Laura Trudeau was preparing to fire up the evaporator.   "It’s important to make sure you have enough sap in the evaporator before you start the fire. So today we’re going to keep it pretty low because we’re boiling raw sap, so it’ll be like old-timey sugar making: low and slow on the fire."

Explaining the evaporator process at Parker's Sugarhouse

Despite the slow start to the sugar season, people were welcoming spring at the sugarhouse with a pancake breakfast, maple ice cream cones, horse-drawn carriage rides and tours of the maple production operation.  Julia Ingersoll comes from Saratoga Springs every year.   "It’s an amazing technology. Sometimes you drive by and look at all the wiring.  I don’t know what it’s doing to deer. That was my first thought was that deer walking by would just take them down. But I’m amazed by the technology.  Every time we come and see it all it’s like this magical land of maple sugar candy."
Parker’s Sugarhouse patriarch Earl Parker has been tapping trees for decades and says Julia needn’t worry about the deer.  "They duck under it and jump over it and they don’t seem to do any damage to it at all. Squirrels are our biggest hazard. The squirrels like to chew on it. If they make holes in the tubing we get a
leak and we have to go find it and fix it."

Andrew Golt stopped by Parker’s with his sister-in-law Cheryl.   "You can do so much with maple. It’s fabulous. It’s more than just pancakes."
Andrew adds: " I’ve been coming here for years. It’s a limited season here so you have to appreciate what you’ve got!

Port Kent resident Joha Battin was with his 4-year old daughter Fern.   "It’s the beginning of things turning from white to green. That’s what it’s about for us.  And a little bit of sweetness for the kids. When I was a kid we made maple syrup. One of the best things in the world is to make coffee, but instead of using water, use just sap. It gives you coffee that is unlike anything else. It’s amazing."

maple bucket on tree
Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

Last year maple producers made syrup until the end of April.

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