Reading this article in the NYT recently, made me think…
Forty years ago, Mr. Morse would snowshoe into the forest with his father to collect sap from galvanized buckets and load them onto a tractor. The farm has not changed much since then, but the winters have. So has the maple syrup ritual itself.
Scientists say the tapping season — the narrow window of freezing nights and daytime temperatures over 40 degrees needed to convert starch to sugar and get sap flowing — is on average five days shorter than it was 50 years ago. But technology developed over the past decade and improved in recent years offers maple farmers like Mr. Morse a way to offset the effects of climate change with high-tech tactics that are far from natural.
Today, five miles of pressurized blue tubing spider webs down the hillside at Morse Farm, pulling sap from thousands of trees and spitting it into tubs like an immense, inverse IV machine. Modern vacuum pumps are powerful enough to suck the air out of a stainless steel dairy tank and implode it, and they help producers pull in twice as much sap as before.
(click here to continue reading Maple Syrup Takes Turn Toward Technology – NYTimes.com.)
Forty years ago? That would be in the 1970s, and as it happened, I witnessed first hand such production at my family’s 100 acre spread called Frostpocket. I put out a call for some photos of it, and so far, have received three.
Frostpocket Maple Syrup Shack, originally uploaded by swanksalot. [scanned from a print, and slightly retouched in Photoshop]
The site of the Frostpocket Maple Sugar shack (photo taken a few years after we moved away)
As part of our family history, partially excerpted from:
In the spring of 1974 George tapped a few maple trees around his house and made five gallons of maple syrup. His evaporator was an old-fashioned flat steel pan that had been given to him by Wilfred. The next year George surveyed the hillside between Randy’s house site and south of the log cabin and found places for 288 taps. That spring he had the help of Greg Sperry and Bie Engelen, who had wintered over in the cabin, and of Colleen, who was pregnant with Katie.
George placed the old flat pan outdoors near his house and carried the sap to the pan in the old fashioned way, in buckets. The first run of sap was on April 7 followed by runs on April 15 and 16, April 20 and 21 and on April 22 and 23. Colleen pulled a muscle while carrying buckets of sap through the deep snow and her doctor ordered her to stop. She devoted her time to curing and smoking last year’s hams and starting tomato plants for the garden while George and Bie continued working in the bush until the weather turned warm and the sap stopped running. George made 25 gallons of syrup that year, much of which was amber or dark. George sold some of the syrup and used the rest at home as a sweetener. In the fall of 1975 a shed was built in the flats below the log cabin and the evaporator pan moved there. A large quantity of standing dead balsam fir trees were cut from the edges of the clearing and stacked near the shed for use as firewood the following spring.
Per my dad: “homemade tubing washer, taken about 1978.”
The eroded granite hills of the Eagle Lake Uplands are an ideal environment for the rock or sugar maple and the sugar maple is the dominant tree on the stony hilltops of Machar Township. The first generation of pioneers placed a high value on maple sugar and brought sugaring off equipment with them when they settled the township in the 1880s. By the 1970s there were half dozen maple syrup producers in the Uplands community.
The boiler where we made maple syrup, after about ten years of neglect.
For the 1977 sugar season, George designed a system of dump stations to reduce the effort needed to collect the sap. Gathering the sap from the sap buckets and hauling it to the evaporator is the most laborious part of making maple syrup. At least once a day when the sap is running, every bucket has to be emptied and the sap delivered to the evaporator and boiled to syrup as quickly as possible. On a warm day any delay might result in a finished product that is “dark”.
If the sap is left in the buckets overnight and the temperature stays warm throughout the night the sap may begin to ferment and will spoil. The spoiled sap can still be boiled into syrup but is will be very dark, have an after taste and be difficult or impossible to sell. Furthermore the spoiled sap will contaminate the buckets, tubing and storage tanks making any syrup produced thereafter more likely to be dark.
Most modern sugar bushes use a system of tubes that moves the sap directly from each tap to the evaporator house without the use of buckets. In January or February 1977 George and Philip set up 22 dump stations connected by black plastic PVC tubing to one of two storage tanks. One storage tank was mounted next to the evaporator in the sugarhouse. The other was a transfer tank located in a low spot between the log cabin and George’s house.
The men used a gas-driven gear pump to move the sap from the transfer tank to the storage tank in the sugarhouse. The sap was collected from the buckets hanging from each tap in the usual way but instead of carrying the sap to the evaporator, it was carried to the nearest dump station. From the dump station the sap flowed by gravity through the tubing to one of the storage tanks. Whenever the storage tank was partially full, George would build a fire under the evaporator and began to boil the sap into syrup. As the level in the evaporator dropped he would open a valve to move sap from the storage tank into the evaporator.
The old flat evaporator made syrup in batches. When all of the syrup in the pan was ready, George poured the finished syrup into retail containers and then sealed the cans. In 1977 he purchased a more modern evaporator that had partitions built into it. The sap continuously entered at one end of the pan and moved slowly to the other end where it was taken off as syrup.
George always made the syrup while Philip and Debbie emptied the sap buckets and carried the sap to the dump stations. When the storage tank was near empty the sap in the transfer tank was pumped over to the storage tank and George continued to make syrup until both tanks were empty. After a good run the evaporator was kept boiling until late into the night.
and to quote myselffrom 2010:
Maple syrup season was always my favorite time of year as a kid: spring meant snow was beginning to melt, plus there was lot of opportunity to play in mud as I walked the mile home from where the school bus dropped me off. I didn’t participate much in the actual maple harvesting process, but it does have an evocative smell which I can still recall after all these intervening years.