Magazine article American Forests

Tapping the Forest: Cabin Fever? Sweet Tooth? Nostalgia? Whatever the Reason, Consider Checking out Your Woodlot's Sweeter Side. (Woodswise)

Magazine article American Forests

Tapping the Forest: Cabin Fever? Sweet Tooth? Nostalgia? Whatever the Reason, Consider Checking out Your Woodlot's Sweeter Side. (Woodswise)

Article excerpt

There are usually several feet of snow on the ground at the time of the annual Town Meetings in Vermont on the first Tuesday in March. Spring could still be eight or more weeks away. Many years ago we discovered the perfect solution to "cabin fever" right in our own woodlot: sugaring.

Sugaring, or the process of making maple syrup, was the only source of sugar for native Americans and early New Englanders. During most of March and April sugaring remains a traditional rural activity in forests all across the northern two tiers of states from Minnesota to Maine and in southern Quebec and Ontario.

Our first venture into sugaring was a stove-top operation: sap boiled on the kitchen range to produce two or three quarts for our own use. This can also be an effective way to remove old kitchen wallpaper, given the amount of steam! (It takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.)

We have been tapping for about 10 years now. When we decided to become a bit more professional about sugarmaking, we began by looking for a small stainless steel pan, or "evaporator," which holds the sap while it is boiled down to syrup. With that, we estimated we could process 2.000 to 3,000 gallons of sap--about 50 gallons of syrup.

That amount of syrup would require tapping about 60 healthy maple trees, each at least 12 inches in diameter 4-1/2 feet above ground. Some of the trees that were more than 20 inches in diameter would need to support two or three taps. We found enough trees in the three acres of woods around our house for a "sugarbush," as forests managed for maple sugar production are called.

We purchased our evaporator and the wood-fired, cast-iron arch on which it sits from a local Dominion and Grimm dealer. If you're gathering equipment, check with a local sugarmaker for used equipment. We bought 80 used galvanized buckets with covers and spouts (taps) from a sugarmaker who had changed from traditional buckets to plastic pipeline. You will, of course, need a sugarhouse; we converted a small shed, formerly a milk house when our place was a small dairy farm, by adding roof vents and a smokestack. If you don't have an existing structure to use as a sugarhouse, try building a simple shed or temporary shelter. Colonial sugarmakers used a heavy metal kettle over an open fire, a popular scene in Currier and Ives prints. It's romantic but inefficient and seldom satisfactory for producing high-quality syrup.

During the summer we tag selected trees, noting the number of taps each will support based on trunk diameter and healthy crown size. All our trees are sugar maple (Acer saccharum), the most productive for syrup, although several other species of maple are tapped in other parts of the nation, notably black maple (Acer nigrum) in the Lake States and Midwest.

Early in the summer we cut and split firewood for the firebox/arch; most hardwoods will need nine or 10 months to dry enough to burn efficiently. Depending on the species, a cord of finely split dry wood is usually enough to produce 20-25 gallons of syrup. A cord of aspen, for example, produces only 60 percent of the heat energy produced by the same quantity of sugar maple. Box elder or silver maple, only 75 percent. Usually we put up about five finely split cords of wood, at least three to make syrup and the rest for our wood stove-fireplace.

We are able to cut our own wood and use a small hydraulic splitter, but others may have to buy theirs from a firewood vendor at $100-$150 a cord for split green wood (128 cubic feet, which translates to a stack 4 feet-by-4 feet-by-8 feet). That means about $5 a gallon for finished syrup.

Whatever the source, the wood needs to be stacked and covered to ensure dryness. For several years we covered the stack with a plastic tarp; now we use a simple open-sided woodshed alongside the sugarhouse.

A few weeks before sugaring season starts we carefully clean the buckets that hang on the taps, the taps, the larger gathering buckets, storage tanks, and the evaporator pan with a mild cleaning solution to prevent the growth of microorganisms, which affect syrup quality. …

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