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Lessons in Maple Syrup Production

C DaytonThere is a lot of learning by doing on our family farm. That’s not to say that we don’t start out with good intentions and reasonable expectations about what we are doing. But not everything you need to know can be found in the family how-to library or gleaned from discussions with subject-matter experts. Some things you just have to learn by doing.

Several years ago, a well-meaning friend of ours needed to get rid of a couple of full grown sows. He talked us into going into the pig farming business and instilled all of his wisdom upon us to get us started. The two girls we bought from him were introduced to a borrowed boar and soon we were swimming in little pigs and all that comes with them. It went so well the first year that we ended up buying our own boar and kept four of the young sows, and soon we were raising a ridiculous number of pigs. We bought the pigs when the market was high; it could go nowhere to go but up, right?  But we made one serious miscalculation – the market for pork dropped that year. It dropped so badly that the sale of our 42 pigs enabled us to about recover the cost of feeding them. We fondly refer to that experience as “buy high, sell low” pig farming. 

We bought a maple syrup evaporator this winter to make better use of our maple trees. It sounded like a great idea at the time and we knew everything would be on a temporary basis this year. The firewood to fuel the wood-fired arch was a pile of odds and ends left over from cutting our wood supply for the house. The temporary sugar house was made out of greenhouse sheet plastic stretched over a wooden frame. And the used tractor we bought in the fall would see its first real farm duty in snow-covered woods while we gathered sap.

We are going consider the 2013 syrup season another learning process. It’s not a failure, mind you, but a process in need of identified improvements. We made six gallons of really delicious syrup this first season (a bit short of the expected 10 gallons). And here are a few things we’ve learned in the process:

1.      A temporary shelter made out of plastic will probably make a better greenhouse than a sugar house. When we moved it in place in January, there was only a few inches of fluffy snow on the ground and it settled in nicely. By late February, it was surrounded by three feet of water laden white stuff, which slowly melted during our first boiling episode and turned the dirt floor of our shelter into four inches of mud soup. The condensation from the boiling sap condenses quite readily on the plastic ceiling and showers the heads of the shelter’s occupants throughout the boiling process. It’s a lot like a sweet sauna on steroids.

2.      We will need to improve our wood supply for next year. Even Survivor Man would have difficulty getting some of our saturated wood to burn. It’s a good thing we remembered to cover it in the fall with tarps, but covering it was not enough. It’s still pretty wet and is split way too large to burn the really hot fire that is necessary to maintain a rolling boil in the evaporator pan.

3.      The tractor didn’t do too bad in the woods, despite the 3-plus feet of new snow we got in late February that was freshened up with three more feet in mid-March. The tractor is a 1956 model and has no 4-wheel drive, so we really are relying upon good driving skills and the power of the tractor to get though snow that is deeper than the tractor's belly in some places. It took some doing the first time we collected sap, and we ended up avoiding one section of the route entirely due to deep snow. We did realize, though, that the tractor has much better traction with a load of sap than without. That was how we found out that the tires aren’t loaded with calcium like our old tractor was.

So just like pig farming, we learned some things and here's our list of to-do’s to start on this spring:

  1. Build a real sugar house (the plans are already drawn up and we’re making a materials list)
  2. Build a firewood shelter on the side of the sugar house and fill it with little limb wood
  3. Get the tractor tires loaded