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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The conversation turns to sap

With the impending arrival of mud season, the predominant conversation in Northern Vermont involves sugaring.  Temperatures have been flirting with forty degrees.  Days above freezing and nights below are ideal for the clear, sweet liquid to pour forth from the tree.  Traditionally a small hole was drilled in the tree and a metal tap similar to this one is inserted.  Sap is diverted from the tree into the waiting bucket below.  Most small farms and some larger ones still collect sap in this traditional manner.  But there are some who collect it by gravity or even by vacuum pump.

In every industry efficiencies are developed and what used to be accomplished by trekking through the woods with a bucket in hand or accompanied by horse and sleigh, can now be accomplished by electrical or gas powered pumps and plastic pipeline.  A sugar wood can be developed in even the most treacherous terrain, pipeline strung and either gravity fed or vacuum system applied to move the sap from the trees into a waiting collection vessel.  This vessel can be at the roadside or even right in the sugar house.  No longer is the processor required to arduously trek through the woods to collect sap. 

Applying reverse osmosis technology to syrup production now allows the processor to remove upwards of 75% of the water from the syrup before boiling it.  This reduces boiling time significantly and produces finished syrup at much faster rates.  Those using RO often use oil or gas to boil instead of wood, thus making the processing of concentrated sap a financial necessity.  By the time one has invested in an RO unit and an evaporator large enough to process multiple gallons of syrup per minute; the value could easily exceed that of a medium sized house and a new 4 x 4 truck.  While the financial windfall from selling several thousand gallons of syrup at between $40-$50/gallon (depending on the year) is impressive, it must be carefully weighed against the cost of these jumbo evaporation units.  Then, if you have a bad year, the weather doesn't cooperate, the wind blows down trees and limbs onto your pipeline, the price of oil goes through the roof, etc.  Your couple to several hundred thousand dollar investment in sugaring equipment can collect dust and the bank or finance company still expects their payments on time. 

What does vacuuming syrup from the tree do to its longevity?

There comes a time when one has to decide whether they want to work hard or just plain be stubborn.  Sometimes I find a happy medium, other times I can't see the forest through the trees and end up repeatedly rapping my head off the branches until I realize there was a much easier way to do this!  Then there are traditions.  I collect syrup in a traditional manner with metal buckets and taps.  I do; however, take the tractor with my storage buckets out to my maple trees in order to collect it.  If we were farming full time then perhaps we would consider doing away with the tractor and employing horses to do more of the work around the farm.  Until then, the horses would not be worked enough to keep them in shape and their feed would cost more than several years worth of tractor fuel, overhaul and maintenance would cost.  Maybe someday.

In the meantime, Mother Nature has provided us with two days above freezing and the forecast foretells two more.  On my way home from work Monday night I saw my friends and neighbors rushing to get their taps in and get the last fixes to their pipelines completed before the flow of sap which will probably happen this week.  When I got home I took a long look at the longer range forecast and predictions are for temperatures to dip back into the twenties for most of the weekend and next week.  Since we tap our trees with the traditional metal spigots, DH and I were both concerned that any taps we might have installed this week would dry up or freeze up in the colder weather and we would either have to re-tap (hurting the trees) or call the season a bust.  The decision to wait was made.  Tomorrow, Little man and his father will search out the ten taps from last year as well as the additional 25 taps we purchased over the summer.  Buckets will be examined to determine how many can no longer be patched and how many more we need.  Extra egg sales this week have supplemented the farm fund which will be used to purchase those buckets and covers.  The taps, storage barrels and buckets will all be washed on Friday and Saturday and made ready for their seasonal debut, probably at the end of next week.

Finally, the decision will need to be made on whether we will try and make the evaporator pan - which I thought would certainly fit the wood stove in the basement - work with our current stove, purchase fire brick to make an arch for the pan or buy some other kind of food grade pan to fit into the barrel stove.  Perhaps if the weather stays warm enough I might be able to see if the plastic my cousin has will work for the greenhouse.

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