maple leaves

We are sugarmakers. We extract sap from 2000 or so maple trees every spring, and boil it down to make our maple syrup. Some of this syrup we use to make our maple fudge and sugar.

A Large Fire in the Springtime

Boiling maple sap over a fire is a very ancient practice going back a millennium or more. Sometimes we believe winter won't end without these fires. Our predecessors standing before these fires recede into pre-Columbian time. The Native Americans of this area made huge amounts of maple sugar. It formed an important part of their diet. As I build my spring fire I think of these families gathered together as my family is gathered together today.

Sugar trees

tree tapping

tapping trees

cutting trees

cutting wood by the sugarhouse

The tree we tap is the sugar maple Acer saccharum. Other trees in the genus Acer have sweetness in their sap also. Occasionally we will use the red maple but its sap is not so sweet and more boiling is required. A tree is first tapped when it reaches 10" in diameter or about 40 years of age. Tapping can continue annually for a century or more. Tapping in our time means drilling a 19/64" hole 1 1/2" deep into the side of a tree in early March. We use mostly plastic tubing and a battery-powered drill, usually one hole in each tree. The tap hole will be healed over in one to three years. We tap conservatively so our operation will be sustainable over the long haul—centuries maybe, if someone is willing to continue after we're gone.

Since sugar trees can outlast us humans, and since they must have grown a bit before we are able to tap them, we are dependent and grateful for what people did in the past on our land. Loggers who cut other species and left enough sugar trees to grow into a respectable bush; farmers who left sugar trees along a fence row; sugarmakers of the past who managed the bush with the future in mind. We continue on in this vein managing with an eye toward the future.

This is a business like no other—making and transforming a forest into an orchard. Since sugar trees can take 40 years to first bear, unlike fruit trees which will bear in 5 years, sugarbushes are not often planted; rather they are culled from the forest by thinning. Ideally sugar trees should be about 30 feet apart This allows the crowns to grow large and produce lots of sugar, and helps the boles to grow fast and heal over tap holes quickly. Each acre of our land will produce a half cord of wood or 250 board feet of lumber each year, in addition to 300 pounds of sugar. Managing these lands for sugar means that we handle a lot of firewood and lumber. This wood provides the energy to boil the sap and cook fudge, heat our house, cook our food and make hot water. The lumber goes to create the house and farm buildings necessary for our shelter and our operation. The ash remaining from these fires is rich in nutrients, potash and phosphorus, and is spread out on the land to be recycled into future trees. A forest so managed provides a good deal of our sustenance.

We have a strong furry helper - a horse named Teddy. His 900 pounds of muscle help us draw the firewood out of the forest with practically no damage to the trees. He is much safer on our extremely rough terrain than a tractor would be because he is unlikely to tip over. A horse is a very practical way to move heavy loads over rough ground. We get along better with horses than we would with a machine, and he enjoys mowing our lawn!

Our weird climate is one of the necessary conditions for sugar making. The spring time alternation between warm and cold are needed to make the sap run; 20° Farenheight at night and 40°- 45° Farenheight on a sunny day with light winds out of the northwest is ideal. Sugar trees have been transplanted to Europe where they grow but the climate does not provide the extremes in temperature needed to cause a sap run often enough.

our furry helper - Teddy

our furry helper - Teddy

The sugar is formed in the tree during the previous summer. The conditions in the spring however determine the yield. Too cold—no flow, too warm—no flow. A quick warm spring is a disaster. Much better snow in April; “sugar snow” we call it. But the spring really begins for us in February; the first warm day in the bush when we are setting up to tap out. Pleasant days spent on snowshoes on a mountainside. You get tired after such days, but spring has started. We hope for a long slow spring. Sap is definitely over when the the spring peepers come; the very last run is called the "frog run" in honor of these critters.

A Family Business

Ours is a family and friends operation. When our daughters were very small we had a crib in the sugarhouse. They would fall asleep with the steam billowing about and the smell of maple syrup being made. Running a wood-fired sugarhouse during a spring run is very tiring. Sometimes we have to boil till the wee hours of the morning. We can burn as much as 3 cords of wood in a day. That's about 6 tons. So we have friends and neighbors come in to boil with us. During this work we have great philosophical discussions; if all the world's problems are ever solved it will be some spring night in a sugar house with an intense fire going and sap foaming into syrup.

For energy we use wood of course. We are off the utility grid so we make all our own electricity. We have solar panels and a wind generator, recently added a micro-hydro turbine, with a propane fired generator as a back-up. Water is by gravity from a spring.

A farm in an improbable place. Forested, steep north-facing slopes, rocky ledgey terrain, many wet spots, high elevation, short growing season, but a lot of maple trees and just enough tillage for a large garden. That's what we started in 1989, and we've improved the land ever since for sugar production. First we built a very small house and a large garden. We set up a pipeline system and began selling sap to a neighbor. We built a sugarhouse and got a loan to buy an evaporator so we could make our sap into syrup. The family got bigger, the house got bigger, and the garden got bigger. We started making maple fudge and selling syrup and fudge by mail order. We improved the sugarbush—the yield increased.

- Art Krueger


Why We Do It

Tending the fire

tending the fire

Why do people in these modern times make maple syrup? Why do people, who in their other pursuits seem to be practical and level-headed enough folks, suddenly lose themselves in a dedicated frenzy as soon as the earliest sign of spring thaw appears? It's certainly not for the money—maple sugaring is a marginal operation at best.

For this sugarer at least, it has more to do with the senses (not common sense, the other ones). It has to do with living in forests and being nurtured by them in a sensual way. And part of why one sugars is purely for love. For love of being in the woods on an early March day when the exertion of tramping through snow and of drilling the trees makes your blood pulse through you as strongly as the sap is pushing its way up in the trees. For love of the clear cold taste of that elixir sap that quenches your thirst like nothing else can on a hopeful spring day. For love of the intensely penetrating red heat that pours from the fire box each time you open it to stoke up the wood fire. For love of the warm, delicately sweet steam that surrounds you as you bend over the pan to watch the texture of the bubbles thicken from white froth to golden foam. Sugaring is the act of gently gathering what the maple tree has to offer, and then feeding your senses with it through every step of the process; and knowing that you will be able to do it again next year and the next, without harming a thing.

- Trish Norton