Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thoughts on an eighth year sugaring in New York

Join us at Wellspring Forest Farm for a backyard sugaring workshop on SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2 from 1 - 4pm. We also have maple bucket sets for sale. SEE MORE DETAILS HERE.

Sugarbush @ Sapsquatch Maple Products
Time is a funny thing, and reflecting on eight years of sugaring feels at once like very little and also lot. When I think about taking part in a practice that humans have been doing for hundreds of not thousands of years here in the Finger Lakes, my experience is but is split second. In the context of a singe lifetime, though, it adds up to something more significant.

I started my first year with just 25 trees at the Cayuga Nature Center, where the main focus was education for school and youth groups in the area. My favorite event of the year was MapleFest, which had been going on a the center for more that 40 years during my tenure and attracted hundreds of visitors. Working at this place brought me full circle, as I'd first tapped a tree and tasted sap as a seven-year-old, one of the experiences that began my interest in natural systems at a young age.

From the nature center I joined Josh Dolan at Sapsquatch Maple Products in Enfield, NY, tapping around 500 trees for several seasons and having a go at the "big time" of commercial production. Here we worked hard, slept very little, and pushed everything to its potential. I am glad Sapsquatch is still going strong, through I personally chose to scale back down and for a few years tapped just a few trees in my backyard. With the new farm purchased just last year, we now have our version of perfection; a small, healthy grove of maples that offers about a 100 trees which we tap and boil in the woods, at home.

Entering this season, I took a moment to look through all my past photos and pulled a few to share, along with some anecdotes and stories of my time with sugaring. Here are my three favorite reasons that I come back to sugaring season after season:

1#: The art of sap drinkery

Examples of enthusiastic "sap faces" from left to right: Sirena Carpenter, Josh Dolan, and Anya Korfine

One of my favorite aspects of working on all of these operations has been sharing this process with youth, which connects them to the powerful cycles of nature. There is no better way to get a child excited about nature then to show them that sugar can come from a tree! This was my primary experience, and one that I've loved sharing with others, most often for several years as a mentor at EarthArts. Working with kids here earned me one of my favorite nicknames, “Sugarman Steve.”

On a good day, the sap flows like a faucet

These kids knew how to drink sap. We never boiled any, as it was all consumed "raw" and occasionally as a base for white pine needle tea which we'd cook over a fire. There is much virtue in just tapping a few trees for the sap alone; it is a pure and clean beverage (think about it; what could be more filtered than water from a tree?) that boasts high amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Some companies even bottle and sell sap drinks.

making a sap + whiskey to fight the chills
 The water can be enjoyed alone or as a great base for tea and hot beverages. When partially boiled to increase concentration it can be mixed with carbonated water for an all-natural sap-soda. In South Korea, drinking sap is of the utmost importance, where it is considered a "tree good for the bones" and used in a fascinating detox ritual involving a hot room, salty snacks, and lots of sap drinking. Of course, many can attest that the best way to enjoy sap is around the boiler itself, warmed on the fire, with a bit of whiskey added to warm your bones on a cold night.

#2: Sugarshack culture

Good music helps pass the time during a boil
The second best part of sugaring is that the inevitable long hours required for boiling is a great time to invite cold-hardy friends over to have a party around the fire. February and March, the normal peak of sugaring season, is for many people a time when cabin fever is really setting in, and an excuse to get outside is greatly welcomed. One particularly special night for boiling is the "sugar moon", or the full moon that occurs during the sugaring season that is considered the first full moon of spring. This year it falls on March 16th.

There is something about a long night spent out in the cold woods yet standing around a warm fire with plenty of hot beverage and the hum of the boiler that feels timeless, offering a chance to slow down and appreciate the world around you. The fact that syrup requires so much attention is a constant reminder that the products of nature come only with patience, precision, and care. Sugaring specifically is a practice that is only found in the northern cold temperate hemisphere on earth, which makes it a unique process married to both time and place.

Emily Meacham stokes the Sapsquatch fire. 

For those times that friends can't come around the boil, I try to catch up on some reading as I stoke the fire. Some favorite sugaring books are:

The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing -- A classic text that provides a great read on the history, lore, and experience of these famous Maine and Vermont homesteaders. The Nearings sugared as the primary means of income generation to support their simple homestead lifestyle.

Backyard Sugarin’ by Rink Mann & Daniel Wolf -- A great read for the basics of small scale sugaring operations. Great examples of homemade sugaring set ups, and many tips for the beginning.

The Sugarmakers Companion By Mike Ferrell -- This book, just out in Fall 2013, is the most up-to-date, comprehensive book on sugaring out there. Just released in 2013, the author (who is director of Cornell’s maple research program, details all the latest research and important steps in sugaring including marketing tips. An absolute must for commercial sugarmakers.

#3: Time in the waking woods

Dripping spouts are a metronome marking the coming of spring
The best part of sugaring overall is the "excuse" to spend many hours in the woods, witnessing the slow transition of winter to spring, which many years looks more like a boxing match, with the warm spells offering a glimmer of hope and the sudden cold snaps taking any sign of spring away in an instant. Truth be told, for the aspiring sugarmaker, the best seasons are those that flip flop often, though not if the temperatures get too warm (over 45 degrees F) for too long.

While the transition from summer to fall is quite dramatic in these parts, with leaves changing from green to an array of brilliant colors, the signs of winter to spring are more subtle. Walking by buckets and hearing the slow tap-tap-tap of the sap means the trees are moving slow, while on the warmer days the drops fall almost one after the other. Coupling these observations with the larger weather patterns; the wind, the stillness, the sun, the clouds, all tell a unique story and provide a picture show better than any movie or television. The sunsets are often dynamic in purples, blues, and deep reds, while the sunrises offer oranges and yellows which welcome and encourage a weary sugarmaker that another day has arrived, one more day closer to spring.

On the wall of a sugarshack in Eastern NY
Join us at Wellspring Forest Farm for a backyard sugaring workshop on SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2 from 1 - 4pm. We also have maple bucket sets for sale.


For more reading on the "how-to" of sugaring, check out this piece Steve wrote for the book he is co-authoring, Farming the Woods