Posts Tagged ‘homesteading’

A Brief History of Maple Sugaring at our Homestead and a Summary of our 11th Year of Sugaring

We just finished our 11th year of maple sugaring at Ahimsa homestead.  This year was about average.  We started sugaring in 2008 during at the end of our first winter at Ahimsa.  The previous homesteaders (Dorothy and John) had done maple sugaring on the land for a number of years.  They left a maple pan and a couple warming pans.  Dorothy and John did their boiling outside on a temporary maple arch made out of cinder blocks.  We tried this the first year with some success however we were unhappy with the challenges of boiling outside and the fact that the cinder blocks only lasted one season.  The intense heat is really hard on them.  So the next year (2009) we invested in the “half pint” evaporator from the Leader company in Swanton, VT.  This evaporator was recommended by folks as a good basic hobby evaporator for doing 50 or less taps.  This suited us well as we generally do about 15 – 20 taps.  The most we ever did was 30 for a couple years when we were sugaring with another couple. 

Our original maple setup (2008) consisted of an old galvanized metal maple pan sitting on cinder blocks with a piece of old metal roofing as the floor of the firebox.

Maple sugaring season generally runs from late February to mid-to-late March in Central Pennsylvania. The ideal conditions are sunny days in the 40s and nights in the 20s. However due to climate change the ideal conditions are often not present instead we often experience weather that is too cold or too warm. This has led us to the practice of needing to tap more than once. In our early years we tapped once and were done now we often tap in mid-February but then have to re-tap in mid-March. In this way if the weather is wacky we can get a second sap run with the newly tapped trees to compliment the flow from the older taps. The flow slows as the bore hole gets sealed up with debris from the tree. We boil whenever we collect enough sap to make a few quarts of syrup. Depending on the weather we can get up to 10+ gallons a day but sometimes only a couple gallons – the flow is highly weather dependent. The ratio of sap to syrup is approximately 40:1 (40 gals of sap = 1 gal. of syrup) but this varies by year with some years having a higher concentration of sugar. We fuel the arch with dead pine trees from the property. Pine burns hotter and it will even burn pretty good when wet (unlike hardwoods) and the burn is hot enough and the pipe run short enough that we never have any issues with creosote build-up.

We use 2 gallon aluminum buckets with a lid and stainless steel spiles.
Maple pan boiling away on our little “half pint” arch

The process is a pretty simple one. Once we get enough to do a boil we fire up our small maple arch, get a good rolling boil going, and boil it down, down, down all day. We spend the day splitting the pine and feeding the fire about every 20-30 minutes. We pick a time to stop adding sap (typically we do about 40-60 gallons a day) and keep at it until it boils down enough to get a “foam up” (sap foams when it starts to get close to being syrup). After the first “foam up” we generally take it off and finish it in the kitchen. This gives us a lot more control over the process. We’ve had some disasters in the past taking it down too far outside. Syrup will catch fire if you are not careful! We use a maple hydrometer to test the density of the syrup (66% sugar content). When its done we take it off and hot water can it for 20 minutes to make sure the jars are definitely sealed. For many years we simply poured the hot syrup into the canning jars and let them self seal but after loosing several quarts to mold (the jars hadn’t completely sealed) we decided it was safer to can them.

Finished syrup hot out of the canner

We only sugar for ourselves and not for resale. We enjoy the work as its one of the few outside homesteading tasks to do in the winter (other than firewood which is a non-stop endeavor!). Our goal is to produce 5-10 gallons of finished syrup every season. Generally we meet our goal. Our lowest productivity year was 2 gallons and the highest about 12 gallons. This year we did about 6.5 gallons (a pretty typical year). We did note that the sugar concentration was lower this year probably taking about 45-50 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. There’s nothing like the taste and smell of your own maple syrup. We use it in most of our baking and cooking. The 5-10 gallons lasts us for the year.