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How to Harvest Maple Syrup

March 28, 2010

This week, guest poster Sarah Turbow (CC 2010), tells us all about the intricate process of maple sugaring–collecting and turning sap into syrup. Photos are courtesy of Aaron Littman (ES 2010).

Over spring break, nine fellow Yalies and I participated in an alternative spring break trip with the Jewish Farm School to Sapsquatch, a small-scale maple sugarbush near Ithaca, New York. For me, the trip was life-altering in terms of my relationship to food and sustainability, Judaism, and my outlook on life in general. The trip was full of fun, interesting adventures, but by far the most comprehensive experience was at Sapsquatch, where we learned about each step in the maple sugaring process:

We learned how to tell which trees were maples by looking for triangular notches on their trunks where old branches had fallen off. We built a bridge over the sugarbush’s stream to access an area that still needed to be tapped, and were astonished when, after two days, the stream had grown into a rushing river and washed the bridge away. So we built another bridge!

We learned how to tap the trees, by drilling 1.5-inch deep holes into maple bark and I watched in amazement as the sap ran out fast, like water from a tap. Then we collected sap from metal buckets. Over the course of the week I noticed that, depending on the weather, the buckets would either be full and heavy or have a few scant drops. The ideal weather for collecting features mild days (in the 40s) and freezing temperatures at night (20s) in order to catch the sap at the right point when it cycles through the tree. We relied on network of blue plastic tubing to collect sap from trees that are uphill from the Sugar Shack – where the sap is refined–and use gravity to bring it down to the huge collecting basins. In its initial form, sap is clear, water, and only 2% sugar. The water from the sap is boiled off until it becomes syrup, which has 67% sugar-content.

I got to chop wood for the evaporator, an enormous metal fire-fed boiler, and monitored it to ensure that the fire did not get too hot, or that the sap level got too low. The syrup would burn otherwise. I got to taste the syrup at different points in the process, drinking straight from the plastic tubing and licking sap from the trees, and dipping cups into different compartments of the evaporator. Finally, after all of our hard work, we got to pour the jars of delicious, sweet, golden syrup over our pancakes.

Sapsquatch is run by Steve Gabriel and Josh Dolan, two guys who started maple sugaring almost as a hobby, without very much eye towards profit. Steve, who was our guide for much of the week, also works in permaculture, and spoke to us at length about his farming philosophy. Sapsquatch tries to only take as much sap from the trees as they are willing to give.

This idea particularly struck home when we took a field trip to a more commercial – though still organic – enterprise nearby. This operation used gas instead of wood to fuel the evaporator, a reverse-osmosis machine to lower the water content of the pre-refined sap, and pumps to move sap uphill and get more out of the trees.

Though we were assured that this last process does not harm the maples in any way, I felt uncomfortable about the image of mechanically sucking sap from the trees. I also thought about this in the Jewish context of the trip we were taking. Throughout the week, I had tried to be more actively thankful for the food I was receiving and for the earth that was providing it to me, and this seemed somehow contrary to that belief. But I was also reminded that people who worked at this sugarbush depended on it for their livelihood, and I could not, in good conscience, condemn them for their practices.

I have never been a foodie. Frankly, knowing where my food came from or how it was produced or how it related to my religion never really factored into my choices about what to eat. My outlook was changed by this trip, however. I simply feel more connected to what I eat. I am more conscious about who was involved in the production of my food, how far it had to travel to get to me, how much energy it took to preserve it, and whether my dollars are going to endeavors I morally support. I have no desire to become a full-blown foodie, and I am aware of not being judgmental about other people’s approach to food. But if anything, this trip taught me to be a more deliberate human being. Really thinking about what the consequences of my food choices is one of the ways in which I can do that.

For more information about the Jewish Farm School visit: http://www.jewishfarmschool.org/

For more information about Sapsquatch visit: http://www.sapsquatch.com/

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