Monday, February 24, 2014

Syrup is sweet, but how about Sap?

A shortened version of this article appears in this week's Tompkins Weekly newspaper.

            Living in the Finger Lakes, the change from winter to spring is often quite dramatic and enthusiastically welcomed by residents who are sometimes a bit weary after months of bundling up, scraping car windows, and shoveling sidewalks. While the signs of the seasonal change can come in many forms, perhaps there is no better pulse than the process of maple sugaring, which quite literally ebbs and flows based on the changing of temperate. Warm days above freezing coupled with colder nights below 32 degrees F mean the sap is flowing - and spring is coming.

            This way of welcoming change - the harvest of maple sap and the boiling of it into syrup has long been a human tradition, from the native people that walked these lands for thousands of years to the first European settlers to the modern sugarmakers of today. While the tools and technology have changed significantly over time, the basic process is still the same. Tap trees, collect sap, boil, and store. While today syrup is often seen as a luxury item fit only for drizzling over pancakes, for most of its history it was a staple, a necessity. During the time of Revolutionary War, it was even radical. The ability of colonists to make their own sugar meant they could avoid purchasing cane sugar from the crown, a practice that was seen as a form of rebellion against the empire.

            Today, the sugaring world is still changing - and it will continue to change for many years to come. The biggest factor at this point in time is climate change, which is predicted to have several problematic effects on sugaring; mostly notably on the timing of sap flow. Where traditionally mid to late February is common as the time to tap trees (and appears to be holding true in 2014), there is some evidence to suggest that tapping times will generally be earlier, with one research paper co-authored by Brian Chabot at Cornell estimating that tapping may be around Christmas time by 2100. Yet regardless of when it flows, sap will continue to flow for a long time to come.

            Tapping trees is a project that is relatively easy and inexpensive to get into. All one needs is a few sugar maple trees, a drill, a spout, and some sort of collection vessel. On a good year, it can be expected that a tree 12" in diameter or more will produce somewhere in the range of 8 - 10 gallons of sap. At a ratio of 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup, this means that 5 or 6 trees could theoretically yield about a gallon of syrup, per season. But in many cases the amount of time required to boil sap into syrup makes this process impractical for the homeowner, on a small scale. Thus many people do not tap trees, choosing instead to support a local sugarmaker for syrup.

            One thing that anyone with a few healthy sugar maples should consider is tapping for the sap alone, offers a chance to connect to the seasonal change of nature as well as enjoy some potential health benefits. In fact, tapping trees and just drinking the sap may be one of the easiest and most nutritious things to do locally this time of year - especially in your own backyard. The Director of Cornell's Maple Program Mike Farrell profiles this potential in his new book, The Sugarmakers Companion.

            Maple sap, along with other tree saps, has long been viewed as a spring tonic by many cultures around the globe. It is usually about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar, but little known is that it is also loaded with minerals, nutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, phenolic compounds, and more. Worldwide, there have actually been three International Symposiums on Tree Sap Utilization, (1995, 2000, and 2005) where scientists from Japan, Korea, Russia, and Europe discussed the use of tree sap as an end product – most birch.

            In Korea specifically, there is a long history of sap consumption and most comes from the Acer mono, a maple which is called gorosoe, meaning "the tree that is good for the bones" in Korean. This is likely due to the high mineral content in sap, most notably calcium, magnesium, and potassium. There are even places in Korea where people can take weekend retreats, visiting the mountains and consuming as much as 5 gallons of sap per day while sitting on heated floors with conditions similar to a sauna. The idea is to detox the bad stuff and unclog the body from a long winter. In Korean markets, Maple Sap usually sells for $5 - 10/gallon.

            While much of the medicinal benefits of sap around the world have focused on birch, several studies from Korea have cited the potential benefits of maple sap consumption in lab settings for treating osteoporosis, hypertension, and even curing hangovers. Most analysis has been done on the basic content of the maple sap, which has over 50 vitamins and minerals, and also a number of probiotics similar to those found in yogurts and other dairy products. More research would be useful, but it’s hard to argue against the idea of drinking sap as a healthy and good option for the springtime; after all, it is water filtered in a tree and loaded with a bunch of nutritional compounds. It may well be the cleanest water some people will ever be able to drink.

If wanting to enjoy sap, pick up a paint strainer at a local hardware store to help keep the sap clean

If you are interested in collecting and enjoying sap, its important to note that while sap is essentially sterile when inside the tree, it can quickly become contaminated. The choice of container for collection is thus very important. Maple buckets and jugs (a milk jug can make a great collection vessel) should be thoroughly cleaned before use. The best sap runs during the beginning and middle of the season, but as the temperature warms toward the end of March and into April it's best to stop drinking it straight. Sap can be stored in the fridge (or outside if below freezing) for several days and should generally be treated like milk; best consumed within one week of it coming from the tree. And while some of the good bacteria may be killed, to be extra safe some choose to boil the sap to effectively pasteurize it and render it completely safe.

Vermont Sweetwater sells a maple seltzer and other maple sodas.
            Sap can be drank straight from the tree of course, but can also be used to make a wonderful carbonated beverage with a home soda-maker. Simply replace the water with sap, adding as much or as little carbonation as you'd like. It can also be utilized for cooking in soup, stews, and other recipes that call for water. It also makes a wonderful base for brewing beers.

            The straight consumption of sap is an excellent option for people who want to tap some trees but aren’t interested in the time, labor, and fuel to boil it into syrup. It offers an opportunity to harvest the fruits of a long winter and connect to the cycles of the season. While the entire process of making syrup takes considerable energy, sap is just the opposite - it is really simple and takes very little time to tap, collect, and consume sap in a variety of ways. So – support your local sugarmaker for syrup, and try collecting some your own sap this season!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Snow Moon and the Spring to Come

Snow moon at Wellspring, 2/14/14
This weekend began with a Snow Moon on Friday night. Some Native American tribes call the February full moon "the Snow Moon" because it was often the time when the greatest amount of snowfall came.  The weekend following the full moon was another that offered below 20 degrees by day and single digits at night. Admittedly, the colder temperatures this winter have been hard to handle. I love all the snow, but these very cold temps appear to be the new "normal" (what's normal anyway?) and it's been hard to accept that. The cold challenges our ability to stay warm in the poorly insulated tent we call home; it tests our water system and the resilience of our cheeks, fingers and toes (thank god for wool, fleece and down!)

Yet last night, as I reflected upon the week prior, I felt a soothing exhaustion within my muscles. I lay under a blanket with my 2 pups while the wood stove radiated warmth both as temperature and as light.  And my entire being was at peace.

Sadie (now with a GPS collar!)
The week started with a ski trip to Tug Hill. A wonderful snowy weekend, just the 4 of us, until Sadie ran away on our second ski of the day. She was missing for hours. It was dark. It was snowing, and of course, it was cold.  Losing hope, at 6:10pm I asked my friends to pray for her. At 6:11 I was crying. At 6:20 I met Steve at our agreed meet-up spot. And Sadie was there too.
It was nothing short of a miracle.

Sunlit woods CT Hill
This whole week (though still cold) gifted us brilliantly sunny skies, crisp clean air and snow as soft as sifted powered sugar.  The x-country skiing is magical right now and it's the perfect way to get outside and stay warm no matter how cold.

On Sunday morning we went for a 3 hour ski. Then spent 3 hours trudging through the snow with the help of our neighbors to tap ~100 sugar maple trees on our land. A short thaw is coming Tuesday, and we're now ready to harvest the sugary gift of winter.

Metal maple buckets
Sure, the cold can make us all pretty cranky. It certainly makes duck chores less enjoyable, and the second time our water froze - this time it's frozen until the spring thaw -  I really thought I was ready to give up on our lifestyle. But as I reflect on the winter, it has been one of lessons learned and always something to be grateful for if we look for it. (Steve figured out a backup system so we still have water - stay tuned for that blog post).  I now can surrender to winter and I welcome it's force, it's softness and it's gifts.

The Snow Moon also represents the coming of spring. It’s the time when the seeds start stirring to life under the cold ground. The farmers are planning for the season. The animals are readying for their spring births and we are reminded that the long winter will not be here forever.

The Peace of Wild Things - Berry  

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Grandpa is here, on the farm.

Valentines day has always seemed to be a fabricated holiday to me - like many holidays in the US it has it's roots in tradition and yet has become all too commercialized. The day - Feb 14 - has more meaning to me because it is the shared birthday of my grandparents, Fred and Ruby Bergschneider. This coincidence is fitting because for much of my life they have been the example of genuine love, something they shared with each other and their large family.

me (high school) with grandpa (in coveralls) & grandma
Grandpa passed away in 2008. This year, my grandmother turns 85, and grandpa would have been 88. He had a hard battle with Parkinson's in his latter years which was especially difficult for him because so much of what defined grandpa was mobility and thought; he was by far the hardest working man I knew; often up before the sun and working long into the evening, when he'd close up the coin laundry he ran with grandma and come home to fall asleep in his big easy chair.

Grandpa loved to work, loved to farm, loved being outside, and loved helping people. He was an engineer for the Marines in WWII, returning to marry my grandmother and start a family. He got into farming first as a hired man and then farmed for many years in Waverly Illinois, raising beef cattle, pigs, corn, beans, and wheat, and grew lots of their own food in gardens. The whole family, which included 8 brothers and sisters have a range of stories about their time on the farm.

At the farm here, Grandpa is everywhere. I can't help but think of him often as I putter about, taking care of fixing this broken pipe or troubleshooting a problem. His ethic, one important to my father, was that it was better to take a bit longer but do the job right, to the fullest. Also strong in me is a willingness to think hard on a problem, racking my brain and trying to come at it from many different angles. Collaboration and teamwork was also key; something my dad and I do all the time; spending long hours on the phone diagnosing problems, a pattern my father and grandfather often did.

In many ways Fred was my father's best friend. The relationship grew from a mutual interest in electronics, construction, and working with you hands. My grandfather become a healing force in my dads life; his father had been the polar opposite of a loving, supporting person in his life. Besides my grandmother, I think my dad spent the most time with Fred out of anyone in the family - mostly because grandpa was always out working on this or fixing that. They two formed a strong bond and when grandpa passed away it hit my father really hard. Grandpa was a big part of my fathers healing from an abusive childhood, and Fred was able to be both a father and a friend.

the water-moma.
When I lose someone from this world I often commit to serving in their image as I go about my work. As I've gotten into farming and working with the land, my dad and I have continued the working relationship he had with grandpa and we've worked on many projects that grandpa would have loved to help with. My dad and grandpa worked on a unique project long ago in Illinois - an automated monitor that ensure that grain in storage would not get too humid and thus go bad. This invention made grandpa a valued local member of the farming community long after he stopped farming himself. He (and my father) continued to fix electronic farming equipment for many years.

The grain-monitoring invention was named "Grain-Moma" with the idea that the device watched over the grain much like a mother watching over her children. In this image my father and I have developed many things for the farm here including the duck-moma (automatic duck door), pump-moma (shuts off a small DC pump when a tank runs dry) and water-moma (flashes a red light when our rainwater tank is low). Since I interact with these on a daily basis, I am constantly reminded of him, and of the working relationship of father and son that I value as much as my father and Fred did.

In the colder winter months many mornings I am called out into the cold to care take for the animals, letting them out and bring fresh water and food to their troughs. Many of these mornings I slip on a pair of coveralls - more or less an insulated body suit which keeps one super warm. I got my first set of coveralls when I was 6 or 7, wanting to be like dad and grandpa who I always saw wearing them. At that age I used them to keep warm while sledding or building a snow cave. Now it's a necessity to keep up with farm chores and spend long stints outside boiling sap or moving things around. I remember grandpa once saying that all you need to keep warm is a hooded sweatshirt and coveralls. I remember this every time I get ready to go outside.

Another time I remember him is when I put on a button-down farm shirt as a layer and inevitably find myself stuffing screws, receipts, and other random items in the breast pocket. This was grandpas signature wardrobe item; always with one (or both) pockets stuffed full of notes, papers, glass cases, and who-knows-what. I was always amazed at how much he was able to fit in there without it all spilling out.

The final time I think of grandpa (and grandma) is each summer when we put food into storage - especially corn. Illinois after all is part of corn-central USA, and one of my grandpas strategies during the summer was to order a truckload (literally) of sweet corn when all the grandkids were around and we'd help shuck it before it was cut of the cob and put in bags for freezing. Grandpa always had a task for a willing person to do and I was always up to help - I loved sitting on his lap and mowing the fields with the old tractor. I loved holding tools and helping weed in the garden. To spend any meaningful time with him, you had to be willing to work on a project. That was what he did with his time, day in and day out.

a place to remember our ancestors in our home.
As Liz and I build our ideal farm and homestead we are in many ways returning to a sense of life that was a necessity for many people in our grandparents generation. We return from choice, both because we enjoy the lifestyle and because we love knowing where our food comes from. I like to think that if grandpa was alive and able these days he would come out to OUR farm and help us with OUR projects. And he'd love it.

So, Grandpa is here on our farm, to stay. As we go about our lives Liz and I try our best to hold and remember the wisdom and love we experienced with our deceased grandparents Fred, Martin, Annette, and Irene. We live in the passion and the moment as we witnessed in Dale Bryner, Collin Anderson, and Chris Dennis. And as we do this we hold the idea that these people who have left the world as we know it can live on forever in the way we live; that we can remember their gifts and bring them into our daily existence.

Happy Birthday to my Grandpa Fred and Grandma Ruby!