The Zucchini Patch

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

Maple Syrup Season is Here!

Boiling Maple Sap
The First Sap Boil of the Season in Progress  

Sap Bucket on Tree
The Dog Tags Along While We Collect Sap

With a container full of taps, a pile of buckets, a bit and brace and a hammer, we headed out to the woods behind the house in February to tap maple trees. It’s been at least 15 years since we last made maple syrup and getting ready for the season this year has been a big effort.

We began preparing last fall with a walk in the woods before the leaves fell off the trees to mark the sugar maples. A spot of white paint now denotes each maple to be tapped. We stopped at 70 trees; that's the most we thought we could handle this year. When we cut firewood for the house last fall, we tossed aside the irregular pieces for burning in the arch. The dedicated sap boiling pile is approximately two face cords.

Our new evaporator arrived in late January. It has a three-section 2' by 4'  pan that is rated for up to 100 taps. The arch was moved into a temporary shelter that is serving as this year’s sugar house and was fire bricked in place. It will take some effort to move later to a more permanent home. Stovepipe vents the wood burner to the outside.

We bought  2-gallon plastic buckets from a plastic container warehouse for collecting the sap. They had to be drilled to hang on the tap hooks. We used aluminum flashing to make peaked lids that fasten on the rim of the buckets. Our old livestock watering tub was hauled out of storage to serve as a collecting tank. The tub was washed and disinfected and strapped in place on the 3-point hitch platform on the back of the tractor.

The trees were tapped in two phases – one batch in mid-February and the remainder at the end of the month. Winter is hanging on here and as of March 13, we’ve only had one small run of sap. It was enough to make a little more than a gallon of syrup. We're looking forward to the next warmup!

Our new arch and evaporator were fabricated by a small manufacturer in Maine. We shopped around for quite a while and found this one to be reasonably priced compared to commercially-available evaporators. We've only used it once so far, and it performed very well. For more information on this outfit and others the shop manufactures, click on this link:  

 Collecting Sap 

Returning from Collecting Sap 

For the Birds

A cardinal and a hairy woodpecker share a meal

A black squirrel drops by for a sunflower seed dinner 

This healthy white tailed deer has an appetite for black oil sunflower seeds 

For years we’ve talked about cutting down the half-dozen or more dead trees behind our house that mark the start of the woods. They’re an eyesore; some lean over and others have broken off tops. They remain leafless while their neighbors are covered in green all summer long. But they’ve remained standing because cutting them down was never on the top of our priority list.

A few years ago we were discussing removing them and our son told us it would be a bad idea. He studied environmental science in college and told us we should appreciate the dead trees for the natural habitat they created. He called them a haven for birds that carve out nest cavities and eat the insects and larvae that live in dead wood. His assertions were confirmed this past summer when we walked through our woods with a forestry volunteer, who pointed out a gnarly old maple deep in our woods and suggested the best course of action for that tree was to allow it to remain in place as a wildlife tree. So the dead trees in the backyard were given a permanent reprieve, and in return for putting up with their undesirable appearance, we’ve been treated to numerous yard visits by a variety of cavity nesting birds.

During the summer, there’s one tree in particular that is a preferred resting spot and birds often compete for its top branch. That’s where I first got a good look at the Northern Flicker early last summer, and it is where I saw him several times more as the summer went on. Downy and Hairy woodpeckers jump between the broken tree tops, pecking out holes as they frantically search for food. And the nuthatches – white-breasted and red-breasted both – make their way up and down the tree trunks, oblivious to whether they are walking right-side up or upside down.

The camera shy Pileated woodpecker first made itself known about three summers ago, when its topic-like call alerted us to its presence. At least a few times each year I get a good look at him (or her?), but I’ve never been quick enough to snap a shot of this outstanding looking bird.

I started watching birds more than 30 years ago, when my mother-in-law pointed out the difference between a junco and a nuthatch at our feeder. Over the years my observation skills have improved and I can now take better note of who is coming to dinner. This year I put my bird watching hobby to constructive use and joined the Project FeederWatch program sponsored by Cornell University. For two days each week, I observe the yard surrounding one of our three feeders and record the birds that visit. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees and cardinals are on the list every week. There have been a few surprises, too. I’ll be reporting my findings to the Project FeederWatch program, along with thousands of my fellow bird watchers. The data is being collected by bird scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies of Canada to help them with their bird studies. So far it’s been a great experience. My only regret is that I didn’t join sooner.

Cornell sponsors a number of special bird watching events during the year. There is an upcoming 4-day bird count February 15-18, 2013. It is open to anyone who wants to take the time to observe and report what they see.

Click on for more information on the FeederWatch and other volunteer birding programs. 

Splitting Wood by Hand

 Hauling and Stacking Fire Wood 

There’s a sense of comfort and accomplishment that accompanies a full woodshed. We finished packing in our winter supply just in time in early December.   

 Splitting Wood by Hand 

A wedge and the blunt end of a splitting maul (or godevil) were used to split these over sized chunks of firewood into two pieces. Their size and weight prevented lifting them onto our horizontal wood splitter. 
Using a Log Splitter 

Even though a wood splitter operates at a slow speed, the force of the ram can cause an irregular piece of wood to be expelled under pressure sideways. It’s important to remain focused on the task at hand when you're splitting wood. 

Several years ago, my neighbor spent the better part of a summer splitting and stacking a large sugar maple tree he had cut down in his yard. For an hour or two every day, the “thunk” of the godevil striking the wood and the occasional high pitched “twang” of a maul hitting a splitting wedge rang through the air. What made this act so memorable was my neighbor’s age: Mr. Herman was 92 years old when he split and stacked the entire tree by himself.

I suspect Mr. Herman’s success was owed in part to his understanding of the wood. He knew how to stage the pieces and where to strike them. He made each blow count and avoided unnecessary work. He understood and put into practice the art of splitting wood by hand.

This year, despite the fact that we own a wood splitter, we spent a couple of days using wedges and a godevil to split some of our firewood. We were into some very large diameter chunks of a silver maple tree and they were too heavy to lift onto the horizontal splitter. We opted to split them in half by hand first to make them easier to handle. I confess: It’s been a few years since I split wood by hand and I needed a little refresher. But once I brushed up on it, I was delivering the well-placed whacks that split an unwieldy round into two pieces with relative ease. 

I’ve found that staging the wood is the first step to successful splitting. It seems to me that wood splits easier from the top down, so I arrange the chunks upright in the same direction as they grew on the tree to prepare them for splitting. A solid base against which to split is also important – it keeps the impact of the strike in the wood rather than transferring it to the ground beneath. In our case, however, the chunks were too heavy to pick up so we opted to split them on a firm piece of ground near our cutting pile. If the rounds had been smaller, they could have been lifted onto a solid splitting block.

The best place to start a split is along a crack. Most pieces of wood will reveal at least one natural crack and taking advantage of the natural split not only speeds splitting process, it also saves your back. If your chunk of wood is small enough to split with a maul or godevil, aim to strike it along an existing crack. If you’re using a wedge, start the split by tapping the wedge into the wood a little off the center of the round in line with a crack. 

It’s also important to know where not to split. I avoid splitting through knots, burls and crotches; they contain the stringiest wood on a tree and we toss them aside for a summer campfire.

It’s also important to pay attention and use equipment that's in good working order. Avoid using tools with loose handles; they can make a projectile out of the axe or godevil head. Practice your aim – a poorly delivered strike can damage or splinter a handle. And be careful when striking a steel wedge with a maul – the strike can cause pieces of metal to break off and fly.

Using the hand splitting techniques described above, it took just a few minutes to reduce each of our over sized rounds into two manageable pieces. I helped with the hand splitting this year; knowing how to split wood can be a valuable skill on the homestead. Our woodshed is now filled and we’re discussing how we’ll manage the next section of the woodpile in the spring. It contains even bigger diameter pieces of the tree...

It's Firewood Season

C DaytonIf you could burn zucchini in a woodstove, our woodshed would have been full of green vegetable fuel right now. I always seem to plant too much and when we have a bumper crop, the deer are the beneficiaries of it.  But it seems like such a waste. If we could only figure out a way to burn it...

It seems like we’re always a little behind when it comes to firewood. We have to get snowed on at least once before the last of the wood is under cover, and this year is proving to be no different. We never really get serious about getting our wood under cover until the fall. I’m satisfied if we can put the task to bed by Thanksgiving. Well, Thanksgiving came a little early this year, and we didn’t quite make it. But we were close.

Our current firewood supply is coming from two very large soft maple trees that shaded our front lawn until a year ago. We made the agonizing decision to have them cut down to avert potential disaster during a windstorm. They were massive and towered over the house and road. Taking them down was a collaborative effort that involved the power company, the town highway department, and a private tree service. We’ll be chasing chunks of these trees well into next year. It’s hard work for everyone – the sawyer, the splitter, the mover and the stacker.

We always seem to have a lot of activities going on at the same time and this year was no different. Since we bought firewood cut, split and delivered for the past couple of years, all of our equipment needed to be brought back into good working order again. It’s funny how quickly non-use can render something unusable. The homemade log splitter that we bought more than 20 years ago was on the “in need of repair” list. After a new motor and some design modifications, even I can pull start it and make it run again! It’s a pleasure to be splitting wood once more, and the push is on to finish filling the woodshed.

Woodshed in Progress
We built this woodshed about 5 years ago. It holds 12 face cords of firewood, which is a sufficient supply for us during a cold winter. 

We are getting our second real snow of the year today, and there’s only one or two days of work left to on the woodpile before we move on to the next activity. The woodshed will be full before Christmas!

Snow on the Woodpile
Our large wood supply awaits cutting and splitting. The home-built sawbuck, pictured at right, is useful for holding smaller limb pieces while they are being cut. This photo was taken on November 24 after the first measurable snowfall of the year.