Monday, February 21, 2011

The First Harvest

It's spring.

I say that despite the foot of snow that's still covering my garden beds and in spite of the new blanket of soft, clean white that started falling last night.

It's spring.

And it's time to tap the maple trees.

If I were going to write a primer for tapping maple trees for home sugaring it would be something like:
  • Any maple tree can be tapped. Sugar maples are preferred, because they have the highest sugar content, but any maple tree will give maple sap, which can be boiled to maple syrup.

  • For drilling the hole we use a 7/16 drill bit attached to our power drill (I'm on the lookout for a hand drill, but haven't found one, yet). The hole should be about an inch and a half.

  • Sap can be collected in just about anything that will hold liquid and can be attached to the tap (which has a hook for holding the bucket). Since tapping is a regular spring chore for us, we've invested in sap buckets with lids, but the first year we tapped, we used food-grade plastic buckets, which we hung from the taps using the handle of the bucket. We covered the buckets with plastic bags to keep stuff out of the sap.

  • It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, and it takes HOURS for the sap to boil down that far. Sap boiling should be done outside. Sap can be boiled in any fire-proof container. We boil our sap over an open fire in a pan that was purchased specifically for sap boiling (because Deus Ex Machina did some math calculations and determined exactly how big the bottom of the pan needed to be to get the maximum efficiency out of the boiling process). I've also seen people boiling on a gas grill. Whatever works, I say ... use what you got.

  • After the sap has boiled almost to syrup, we bring it inside and put it into a stainless steel pot and finish the boiling in the house so that we can monitor it more closely. We use a simple candy thermometer. When the sap reaches 7° above the boiling point of water, it's syrup (*Note: that number will vary depending on how far above sea level one lives).

  • Once we have syrup, we filter it through a heavy-duty felt filter into clean, sterile canning jars and top with "new" lids. The heat of the syrup will seal the jars and the sealed jars can be stored with other home-canned goods.

Maple syrup is our first harvest. I'd never thought of it quite like that, but it's true. We've been harvesting maple syrup for the past three years, and each year, we get a little fancier. We add a new tap or two each year. We're up to fifteen taps, now, and it's not enough for commercial production, but it's enough for us for the year, which is really the whole point, for us. We're not interested in making money on our nano-farm, but we are interested in feeding ourselves.

I like numbers. I didn't used to like numbers. Growing up, math daunted me, and I can remember getting a headache from having to do long division, but now, now numbers are cool!

Like 40%. That's the percentage of the population of Maine that could be fed by what Maine farmers currently produce (and, as far as I know, the number does not include home producers, like me and Deus Ex Machina).

And the number 784.28, which is the amount of food by pound that we harvested last year.

It's a tiny number - 1/10 of what some others in the non-traditional homesteading movement claim to grow - but in our first year of really keeping track (and I know we missed a few things here and there) after only our fourth year of really trying to subsistence farm on our quarter acre with only two adults who work only part-time on the farm and have outside employment also, I'm feeling pretty good about that number.

Perhaps it constitutes about 10% of my family's annual diet (maybe more, as we produce all of our own chicken and eggs ... and hubbard squash ;). If everyone who lives on a quarter acre did as much, though, the State of Maine could produce half of what its citizenry eats, and perhaps we could boost those numbers higher with just a little effort.

The more we can be self-sufficient as a State, the better off we'll be.

My good friend sent me an email this morning in response to one of my recent posts. She said it reminded her of the African proverb: If you think you're too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.

784.28. What a great number! This year, I hope to double it.

Starting now ... with maple sugaring.


  1. Hey! Wasn't this my post?! And, what's this "because Deus Ex Machina did some math calculations and determined exactly how big the bottom of the pan needed to be to get the maximum efficiency out of the boiling process" thing?

    It is going to be a good year.

  2. Those are some impressive numbers!

  3. I am really hoping to keep a good account of the amount of food we produce tis year. How do you plan to account for your syrup, by pound or by quart?

  4. We're not huge syrup consumers here. I made 8 pints (1gal) of blackberry syrup last year and we still have plenty. We gave away a few pints so we still have about half of it.

    Of course, it was accidental syrup: we used 1/2 Splenda 1/2 sugar so it would be less incompatible with The Boy's diabetes, but we used the pectin that's made for all sugar… so we had syrup instead of jelly. Making more than you need isn't a bad thing by any stretch — you can always barter your excess for something else you don't make. Hey, I'd gladly trade some low-sugar blackberry syrup for some of that maple. :-D

  5. Wendy, I love numbers too when it comes to things like this...I think you have to be hard wired for the real math stuff...(like our hubbys are...) I would love to send you some Arizona Saguaro honey when it is ready...straight from the desert...YUM!

  6. Thanks for the info on the beef Wendy. Between what you and Rich told me I got a pretty good idea of what's what. thanks again!

  7. I have an old hand drill. They are just one of those things you come across. There is a handheld devise that acts as the chuck on the drill and with a little strength and patience you don't actually need the drill mechanism (gearing) to bore into most wood.

    These look like decent hand drills.

    This looks a little clumsy to me, but you could also get a little more muscle into it.

  8. Yeah I agree, applied numbers aren't so bad. It's the other stuff that's boring!
    Ah maple trees! Such a luxury! Alaskans make birch syrup! I remember going camping in Seward as a kid and driving past the one place that had a lone maple tree growing--so cool! You don't realize how neat they are if you've never seen one!