It felt sort of like the Olympics.
All last summer we sourced and bought equipment – evaporator, filterer, bottler, tanks, tubing.
But the real marathon began in the fall, when we built the sugar shack from scratch. Trucks delivering materials and firewood braved the muddy field. Many hands (and a tractor loader) helped lift the cast iron and stainless steel equipment into place.
As soon as that was completed, it was on to tubing installation in the woods. Months spent trudging up and down hills in the snow, every day a cardio workout, stripping jackets off despite the -20 weather. Then, as the warmth of the February sun reminded us that maple syrup season could only be around the corner, were days spent tapping trees, snowshoes useless in the soft, powdery snow of a rare winter without a thaw.
All through this work, the knowledge that, as sure as winter turns to spring, sugaring season would come, sometime in March or April. Winter never felt so short.
Finally, on March 30, a little later than usual, the maple Olympics began. Hopefully all of our preparation was about to pay off. We were ready.
A slow start; freezing nights turned the sap that did run into our tanks to solid blocks of ice. We boiled what we could, and waited.
Then the forecast showed rapid warming coming. A syrup maker’s nightmare! While most people, understandably, can’t have spring come quickly enough, syrup makers pray for a gradual warm up, to prolong the freeze/thaw cycles necessary for good sap flow. With only about 500 litres made so far, we feared a disastrous first season.
The warming trend hit, but the nights being just a little bit cooler up here in these hills, we still got those crucial freezes. The sap poured in. We rejoiced. Farming is an emotional rollercoaster.
But lots of sap meant lots of work. Our work days increased from reasonably 8 hour ones, up to 10, 12, and finally three 16 hour boils in a row. Life was reduced to the bare necessities: sleep, eat, boil.
First we ran out of space in our tanks to hold all the sap; we couldn’t boil it fast enough. We eventually had to let a tank go (a sad thing to do). Then, we ran out of firewood. Luckily, David Gibson, a farmer neighbour, saved us with “just in time” deliveries of firewood, one cord at a time, in the bucket of his tractor.
Finally, the tsunami of sap subsided, and we fell into bed for a deep sleep, followed by catching up on about two weeks of dishes, laundry, and emails.
We didn’t exactly win gold at this year’s maple Olympics – the season was below average for producers across this region – but we do feel like we did pretty good for our first year in the maple big leagues. It was an incredible education – and we didn’t have to pay for it with too many expensive mistakes.
And it was fun – until burnout set in during the final push. It also didn’t feel very good to waste sap, or to burn so much wood. The solution to all three of these problems seems clear to us now: we need a reverse osmosis system.
Osmosis is standard practice in any big maple sugaring operation, and now we see why. It filters out some of the water before you begin boiling, drastically reducing boiling time and wood use. We’re talking 3/4 less wood. An osmosis machine is expensive, but it should pay for itself quickly with wood savings alone. It’ll also allow us to process the sap much more quickly – meaning no more wasted sap, nor burnt-out, grumpy farmers shuffling groggily through a messy house on their way out to another midnight boil.
But most things went quite well. The 3/16 tubing worked out as advertised, creating high vacuum in the sap lines with gravity alone – no pump. Having a roof over our heads and dry ground underneath was a quantum leap from last year’s experience of rain and mud, and having our firewood stacks double as the walls of our sugar shack worked out great. As the stacks declined, our view of the outside increased.
After Stu Mills from CBC Radio showed up unexpectedly on our first morning of boiling, we got quite a bit of media attention and ended up quickly selling out of our maple syrup shares. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of that exposure was that a Francophone TV production company doing a documentary series on organic agriculture in Canada contacted us and will include us in their series. They came and shot some footage of the evaporator in action, and will return in May to shoot some wild food harvesting.
So all in all, we’re quite pleased with how it turned out, grateful that, for now, the marathon is over, and looking forward to the improvements we’re going to make next year.
For the statistically inclined among you, here are some numbers:
Number of taps: 2,350
Kilometres of tubing installed: 17
Syrup produced: 1,666.5 L
Syrup produced per hour boiled: 8.7 L
Water evaporated per hour: 357 L
Average ratio sap to syrup: 41:1
Total sap collected: 75,500 L
Days boiled: 21
Gloves worn out: 10
Gloves tossed into the fire by accident: 1
Face cords of wood used: 54
Litres of syrup per face cord: 31
Longest boiling days: 16 hours (6 am to midnight, 3 days in a row)
For more photos, check out these two posts: