Columnist taps into ‘sappy’ self

Unlike a large commercial operation, Magic Forest Farm does not rely on comparatively high-tech sap harvesting. Rather, workers must tap each tree, attaching a collection bag low on the trunk.

As thoughts of spring flutter in the approaching future, maple sugaring season is in full swing!

A year ago, maple syrup was merely something I associated with Canada and other people’s pancakes—I prefer my own plain. However, all this changed during spring break of 2018, when I spent two weeks as a volunteer at Magic Forest Farm, a small family operation outside of Albany, NY. I came to Magic Forest Farm as part of Workaway, an online service that connects homestay hosts with volunteers interested in traveling for various types of projects, including organic farming. My two weeks as a volunteer were transformative; one of my most exciting experiences was participating in the process of maple syrup production.

Magic Forest Farm has 225 acres of mostly-forested land. In keeping with the climate and region, many of these trees are maples. The farm capitalizes on these plentiful trees as a source of food production. When I arrived in early March, farm workers had already tapped the trees and sugaring season was well underway, but I was fortunate enough to learn each step of the process from sap collection to maple syrup bottling.

Magic Forest Farm is much smaller than a commercial maple syrup operation and lacks the technology needed to make the process more efficient. For example, many farms collect sap through tubing mechanisms that attach all the trees to a common storage tank and use gravity or mechanical vacuums to transport sap from tree to storage. However, at Magic Forest Farm, workers attach a collection bag to each tree. During my time at the farm, we would collect sap every few days.

Weather conditions are crucial to sap collection: Sap only flows when the temperatures remain below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. After learning about the natural balance that contributes to sap, I felt I better understood the maple trees and tried to be mindful of the way in which sap collection is a form of human theft from nature. The endeavor involved walking through the snow with collection jugs, detaching each individual sap collection bag from the tapped trees, emptying the sap into the jug and then loading all the full jugs onto the back trailer of an all-terrain vehicle that delivered the jugs to the storage tank. Due to the snowy trails on the farm property, a normal truck can’t reach all the tapped tree sites.

Here, the cooker is shown. After bags of sap get harvested, they are emptied into jugs before the sap makes its way to this outdoor cooker, where it gets boiled down to the syrup stage.
Above, a close-up view of a tapped tree with a collection bag. A worker inserts a spile into the trunk, then affixes the bag. Over time, gravity causes sap from the trunk to drip into the pouch.

I loved the activity of sap collection. It was an adventure to tromp through the snow, enjoying the peaceful presence of the trees while in search of bags full of sap. A plump collection bag, heavy with liquid, was like discovering a long-awaited treasure. I would eagerly transfer the bounty into my collection jugs, taking care not to let a single drop spill. Lifting the five-gallon jugs, combined with the effort of wading through thigh-deep snow, made for a good workout—at the end of each day I was pleasantly tired.

Sap collection is only the beginning of the maple syrup story. The sap is clear and just mildly sweet. To produce syrup, it has to be boiled down to a much higher sugar concentration: about 40 gallons of sap for a single gallon of syrup! Learning these facts and taking part in the labor of the process earned me a new understanding of the seemingly expensive price of pure maple syrup.

At Magic Forest Farm, the reduction process begins in an outdoor cooker, a large pan heated by a roaring wood fire underneath. The wood fire adds a distinctly smoky flavor to the finished product—my tongue was intrigued by my first taste of Magic maple syrup. The cooker pan is filled with sap from the storage tank.

The whole apparatus requires constant monitoring to make sure that the fire is going strong and the sap stays at an acceptable level, as it can burn if there isn’t enough liquid in the pan. “Cooker babysitting” is much less physically taxing than sap collection. Standing by the warm fire surrounded by the sweet smells of wood and sugar was a lovely opportunity to let my thoughts wander peacefully.

The syrup-making process finishes on the wood stove inside the house. The reduced sap from the outdoor cooker, now slightly darker in color, is transferred back into jugs and transported to the kitchen. We workers filter the sap through a cloth filter and then move it into a large pot on the wood stove. Filtering actually occurs at each transfer of sap in the sugaring process to remove impurities, and I learned that the number of times we filtered at Magic Forest Farm was much fewer than the requirements for most mass-produced syrup.

Once the sap is in the pot, the waiting game begins. The sap has reached the syrup stage when a special instrument called a Brix meter floats at a certain line. Then we can finally bottle it! My first time bottling was extremely satisfying. To see the thick, amber liquid gush into the container, and know that I was involved with its creation, felt significant.

After the necessary time spent in the outdoor cooker, the now more viscous sap gets moved to a woodstove inside the farmhouse to complete the process of cooking down, creating the finished syrup.

Of course, my journey with maple syrup didn’t end with the final step of the production process. To fully enjoy the experience, I obviously had to consume some maple syrup. A fellow volunteer and I found great fun in experimenting with it in various recipes: salad dressing, roasted vegetables, oatmeal and cornbread.

Our favorite creation was maple candy; when boiled even longer, the maple syrup eventually hardens as it cools. We would drizzle this mixture over popcorn and salted nuts to create a dangerously addictive snack. This was our fitting tribute to the hours of labor and the gifts of nature necessary for exceptional maple syrup.

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