Summer Maintenance

Summer is finally just around the corner, the veggie garden is planted and I am daydreaming of the plump tomatoes they will yield in the weeks to come. Though to many maple syrup season may be a thing of the past, or too far into next year to bother thinking about for some people it is what is on my mind. In the off-season maintaining a healthy sugarbush is as important as syrup production in the spring – there will be less sap to harvest in years to come if we do not perform seasonal upkeep. Walking through the forest I make mental notes, identify strong, healthy tree stands; plot additional collection routes; tag trees for removal. Though they may seem mundane these tasks are important to a healthy sugar-bush.

Upon first blush tagging trees for removal may seem counter-productive to the beginner sugarer, especially precious maple trees; maple sap comes from maple trees so why would anyone in their right mind want to take them out? What I’ve learned over the past few years from attending workshops, courses, and repeated walks in the bush with a seasoned land owner is that selectively cutting trees in a stand can indeed benefit the overall health of a forest, even a sugaring operation that depends on harvesting sap from maple trees. Take a lone tree in an open area that is in well-drained soil and has lots of sun exposure for instance. You will see it many strong branches and an abundance of leaves (known as the ‘crown’). That large crown will photosynthesize much more sunlight than a tree with a small crown. Photosynthesis promotes growth by taking sunlight + water + CO2 and converting them into O2 and sugar, meaning the more sunlight a tree gets, the more photosynthesis that is likely to take place, the bigger the canopy and root system grow. Now imagine flipping that tree horizontally so that the crown is facing down; this is what size the tree’s root system should be approximately. In other words the size of the crown is roughly the size of the root system. Apply this principle to a tree in a densely crowded forest: a tree that is crowded or gets very little sunlight has limited crown growth, meaning it’s root growth is limited as well. Since the root system is where the water is absorbed from the ground in the warmer months, and where over the winter the tree stores the sugars needed to feed itself and grow come springtime, crowded trees do not have as big of a sugar reserve, hence they produce less sap.  By selectively cutting damaged trees, weed trees, or even an overcrowded area, one opens up the forest canopy, letting the sunlight touch leaves, encourage photosynthesis, foster crown and root growth. The more vigorous the growth, the better the sap flow! Over the summer I will continue to meander through the woods, observe and note.

Advertisements

The Run

The period when sap flows is aptly called the run; the sap runs through the trees and out the taps, the sugarers run around the bush trying to collect buckets fast enough before they overflow.

Maple Syrup Season 2

I’ve been getting all of my ducks in a row these past few weeks.  Since we tapped the trees 2 weeks ago, I have been stacking wood, cleaning tools, organizing equipment…and waiting for the sap to flow.  And waiting some more.  Since that week of sunny days with above average highs, the temperatures have dropped again (and I dare say plummeted last night to -15° Celsius with a wind-chill of -25°Celcius). Needless to say I’m antsy; I want to have a boiling day!  I’ve been keeping myself occupied by  double-checking that all of our equipment is in order, and doing beekeeping research (a story for another day).  In particular we’ve been fine-tuning our sap-transportation process.  Since the RTV has mini-caterpillar tracks on it meant for getting around in the bush now, it’s inefficient to be driving it back and forth to the house to empty the 50 gallon collecting tank out.  I purchased a bigger tank (over twice the size at 125 gal) this winter that we will situate in the truck bed instead.  So we will be dumping the buckets into the RTV tank, pumping sap from the RTV tank to the one in the truck, driving the truck to the sugar shack and then pumping the sap from the truck tank to the holding tank outside the sugar shack.    We mulled over the best way to do this given the equipment that we already own and settled on purchasing an additional pump to leave in the second collecting tank for the season.  Getting the proper sized fittings and tubing and quick connects has been a trial.  At Canadian Tire and then at Home Depot we went in search for the correctly sized brass fittings – no dice.  They had male 1/2 inch converter for garden hose, and a female 3/4 inch for vinyl tubing.  Plastic and pvc but not brass.  I reined in my compulsion to pull my hair out in frustration.  The only purchase that resulted from that excursion was garden seeds for pretty flowers.  We finally accepted that the most reasonable and economical solution is to duplicate the system that we already have instead of buying additional converters to fit the extra tube that we have lying around.  Meaning, we simply need to buy more tubing with the right inner diameter.  Big sigh.

Ducks!  Attennnnntion!  And waddle!

Maple Syrup Season 2: Tapping

Let the season begin!  This week we’re tapping our trees.  The high temperatures are going up past zero degrees Celcius for the whole week, meaning the sap will be flowing.  From now until the end of the season I’m going to be riding a high that has been building all year.  Yesterday we set out on the RTV with three friends to tromp through the snow, drilling trees, tapping in spiles and hanging buckets.  We got a chunk of the bush tapped; today AJ and I are heading out to tap some more.  Photos to appear shortly.

I’m excited to report the filter stand I ordered from the welding shop is ready to be picked up (just in the nick of time!).  It will improve our efficiency, alleviating one individual from the burden of holding the filter with 30+ lbs in it aloft for half an hour.  My arms will enjoy the respite. 🙂

 

 

 

Maple Syrup Season: Round 2

Sugarshack Dutch Doors

Wistful thoughts of mine include hanging my shingle beside this door and selling maple syrup straight from the sugar shack.

With my second maple syrup season approaching quickly, thoughts of the sugar bush have been consuming my mind: sustainable woodlot practices, food preparation, equipment preparation…  The list goes on.  I’ve been tinkering with the idea of selling some of my maple syrup.  In designing the sugar shack we included a set of Dutch doors on one side of the entry way.  For me these doors bring to mind visions of old bakeries and other food producing kitchens where consumers could approach a kitchen and purchase food within minutes of it coming out of the oven.  I value the notion of goods going straight from producer to consumer.   Now, our operation is too remote (and muddy) to expect people to come knocking on our door looking for syrup, beyond a couple sales to friends at a pancake breakfast I plan on hosting but it’s still fun to include the Dutch doors design element into our sugar shack.  Since we are located close to Carp, selling at the Carp Farmer’s Market is the next best thing to selling straight from the sugar shack.

Here is my label design in all of it's glory.

Here is my label design in all of it’s glory.

 

For fun I designed a logo to put on my bottles.  The design is a simple drawing; pencil, very flat style.  Basic yet distinct.  I chose these elements to convey the traditional, back to basics nature of our methods; and the unique flavors of pure maple syrup.  (What’s more is unlike some commercial brands my syrup is made from 100% maple syrup and doesn’t contain a plethora of ingredients that you can’t pronounce!)  Since I’ve got the design figured out, my next step is to find some label paper that I can print on and set up a printer template.  I’m thinking that I want an arched top, however that may cut off a lot of my drawing.  Maybe I should add some more tree limbs to the top….  Back to the drawing board!!

 

Winter Anticipation

Winter 2015 has seen some pretty extreme weather. -40 with the wind-chill? I’ll stay inside thank you very much. I heard on the radio that this winter has seen the coldest temperatures in 114 years.  We went for a walk in the sugar bush yesterday and found that a new path branching off from the main road had been roughed out with the RTV by my Dad. We walked it while I excitedly counted maple trees. “1 tap in that tree, 2 taps in that tree….” I thought to myself as we slogged through the snow. My rough estimate is we will get 15-20 more taps from the trees down that path. Us being as horribly unoriginal as we are, none of these paths have names. We’ve come up with ‘the treeline’ to refer to the path along, you guessed it, the treeline. Or the main road we’ve called ‘the main road’. I want to name this road something more exciting than “new path”. Maybe the rabbit path… We’ll see. More on that later.

Winter Anticipation 2

‘Tis the season! The season to get excited about spring.  Maple syrup season round 2!  In eager anticipation of this monumentous season I decided to go to Montréal to buy maple syrup equipment. Julia, why wouldn’t you just buy it from somewhere around here, you ask?  I’d done my research and found that Montréal was the cheapest place I could get a bulk order of bottles and a holding tank from.  But wait, there’s more!  Montréal is where the Dominion and Grimm headquarters is, Montréal is where the dealz are, I answer!  I picked one of the worst driving days this season to go it seems, but that’s beside the point.  I borrowed my Dad’s truck and struck out for the promised land!  There were so many tools of the trade on display at Dominion and Grimm that I was like a kid in a candy shop.  I saw the Hurricane evaporator on display that can reach temperatures of 2100 degrees Farenheit (evaporates 2.7 gallons of water per minute!), I saw hulking reverse osmosis machines.  I saw a bottling machine with 4 spouts for increased efficiency.  I saw big coils of bright green and bright blue tubing.  I was blown away by the sophistication of some of the equipment.  Clearly some of that equipment was beyond the scope of my 200 tap, traditional collection operation.  Maybe some day I’ll have a need for all that jazzy equipment but not today.  I bought 20 used buckets, spiles, and cleaning equipment that will make the back-breaking clean-up in April easier.  After packing my purchases into the back of the pickup we slowly made our way back home through the storm. Crossing the city in rush hour traffic with lots of precious cargo in a snowstorm was nerve-racking.  Next time I’ll make the trip in the summer!

Boiling Day Preparation

Big days in maple syrup production are the boiling days.  I should preface that statement, noting that ALL days in maple syrup production are big days from the many labor-intensive duties the process requires (fuel needs to be collected, the trees need to be tapped, the sap needs to be continually collected, the equipment needs to be sterilized), but I deter.  The BIGGER days in maple syrup production are boiling days.  As can be deduced from what is described below, it takes a lot of preparation!

Boiling days typically last from 8am to 3pm or later.  On boiling days, one needs enough firewood to feed the fire in the evaporator approximately once every two minutes.  For a full day of boiling that requires a lot of wood.  To know roughly how much wood we will require let’s do bit of calculation: now, a cord of wood is defined as 12 inch pieces of wood piled 4 feet deep, by 4 feet high, by 8 feet long.  Maple syrupers say that when using dry, split hardwood, evaporator efficiency is about 25 gallons of syrup per cord; 15 gallons of syrup per cord with dry, split softwood.  We’re using some soft and some hardwood so I’ll average it out and say 20 gallons/cord.  We have bout 125 taps up that will each produce on average 20 gallons of sap over the season.  This will yield a grand total of 1875 gallons of sap (20 gal. x 125 trees = 2500 gal.).  Divide that yield by 40 (40:1 sap:syrup ratio) and you get 62.5 gallons of syrup.  Finally, divide 62.5 gallons by ~20 gallons per cord and you get 3.12 cords.   All that is to say we will need a little more than 3 cords of wood this year.  Now, all of these calculations are based on dry wood.  This means before the boiling even takes place enough damaged trees need to be cut down and cut into logs which are then split, stacked, and dried.  Drying wood takes more than a weekend, or even a month.  Drying takes about a year of sun shining down on the wood, slowly evaporating moisture from the densely packed wood fibres.

Tree Cutting

Making maple syrup is not for the faint of heart. It requires lots of work, including felling, cutting, splitting and stacking wood for fuel the following year.

This year is going to be a bit unconventional for our maple syrup production.  Since we just bought our evaporator this year, we don’t have that much stacked and dried fuel set aside specifically for burning in the evaporator.  Luckily, we have some extra that hasn’t been used to heat the house this year that we can use for evaporator fuel.  To be better prepared for next year my Dad and I have been in the bush a number of times lately, felling dead trees for fuel, cutting the wood into logs and splitting and stacking the wood to dry.

On boiling day, dry fuel wood burns furiously.  The chimney attached to the rear of the evaporator in the sugar shack rises high above the roof-line to catch the airflow of the wind.  This airflow draws the flames from the firebox of the evaporator, stretching the flames from the ‘arch’ as maple syrupers say, toward the back of the evaporator to the chimney.  Since the evaporator is so long and the fire is positioned near the front, the flames get stretched/drawn-out almost horizontally towards the chimney, to almost a metre in length at times (witnessing the power of the blaze once it gets going is awe-inducing and makes me very glad we mounted a fire extinguisher on the wall within an arms reach for if things were to go awry!).  It is this draw from the chimney that heats the length of the flue pans that sit atop the firebox and increases the efficiency of an evaporator.  If wet or green wood were to be used instead of dry wood, the crisp, roaring fire that makes an evaporator so efficient would be replaced by a smoldering, smoking mess.  Smoldering wood does not create nearly enough heat to evaporate sap into syrup, hence all the fuel preparation maple syrup requires!

Spring Thaw, Maple Melt

Maple Sugarer: A person who taps maple trees to produce maple syrup and other maple flavored products.

As the days get longer and the temperature warms one can tell spring is in the air.  After a long winter of being cooped up indoors to escape the cold, many jump at the chance to enjoy the outdoors again in warmer temperatures.  The tell-tale drippings of melting snow signify a lesser known event as well – the beginning of maple syrup season.  When the temperature raises above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, sap that has been kept in safekeeping in trees’ roots starts flowing up and down the thick trunks of maple trees as Mother Nature prepares the forest for growth.

Maple sap comes from tapping trees in the springtime during that flow, or run as maple sugarers call it.  Traditionally, to tap a tree one drills into the trunk two inches and fills the hole with a spile or spout.  A bucket is hung from a hook attached to the spile.  This allows the maple sap to run out of the spile and fall into the bucket.  

Drip, plunk, drip, plunk, drip, plunk.  The sound of the forest during maple syrup season has a calming quality to it.  It is easy to be mesmerized by the sound.  However, there is little time for that since the run happens for such a short time of the year.  Whomever coined the sap flow a ‘run’ knew what they were talking about – for about 6 weeks sugarers are running around the forest in a frenzy tapping, collecting sap once, maybe twice a day and then spending a full day boiling down the sap in a sugar shack every few days until it reaches just the right density to make syrup.  

Evaporators are used often to boil down maple syrup.  Evaporators are specially made units to increase a fire’s heat efficiency, in this case to make maple syrup.  They can range anywhere from 2 to 12 feet long, depending on the size of one’s operation.  Evaporators have an arch, where the fire is started and the wood is loaded in to feed the fire.  On top of the arch are a set of pans.  These pans have flues in them, little raised inlets which increase the surface area of the pan and this is where the increased efficiency comes from – the more surface area of the pan, the faster the sap evaporates. On boiling days steam rises off the pans in clouds and comes billowing out vents at the top of sugar shacks like clouds of maple-flavored cotton candy!

When the boiling is done everyone breathes a big sigh of relief!  Until it needs to be done again, that is.  The run is a busy time indeed!