MIDDLEPORT – Lately, the four Wolf children hop off the afternoon school bus and make a beeline for the metal buckets hanging from the towering sugar maples surrounding their farmhouse.
Following a long winter, the sight of clear sap dripping from a spigot into a bucket can only mean two things to these kids, ages 8 to 15, who were raised in the business.
It’s maple sugar time, and spring truly is around the corner.
“This is the time of year when everyone is sick of the cold, and this gets us outside and into the sunshine,” said Heidi Wolf, who, along with her husband, Jason, operates Wolf Maple Products at 9355 Chestnut Ridge Road. “You know when you’re making maple syrup that spring is right within reach. It’s better than the groundhog seeing his shadow.”
The Wolfs are gearing up to participate once again in the 19th annual New York Maple Weekend, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, next Sunday and March 29 and 30 at their farm.
This free event features visits to sugar houses throughout the state, which is second only to Vermont in U.S. maple syrup production. It is sponsored by the New York State Maple Producers Association.
In Niagara County, the event also welcomes a newcomer, the Gaeta Family Farm at 3789 Ridge Road, Lockport. Longtime host Flyway Farm in nearby Medina will not participate this year.
Anthony Gaeta, owner of the Gaeta Family Farm, taps about 140 trees on his relatives’ Cambria property and brings his haul back to his newly constructed sugar house on Route 104. He said his brother-in-law, Richard Goodman, helps him make the maple syrup.
The Saint-Gobain retiree calls the maple sugar business “a lot of work, but a lot of fun. It’s our first agricultural crop of the season, and it’s strictly a North American product – nowhere else in the world can you make this from maple trees.”
Gaeta said last week that he’ll have maple syrup and maple cream for sale as long as the weather cooperates.
“We’re very late this year – we haven’t done any boiling yet,” he said. “We finally got our trees all tapped this past weekend. Last year, we were boiling by the third week of February. We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
But Gaeta said he’s eager to share the practical knowledge he’s gained in seven years of making maple syrup during Maple Weekend.
“I love maple syrup, and it’s healthier for you than the table (commercial) syrup because there’s no high fructose corn syrup in it,” he said.
Jason Wolf also finished up tapping his nearly 1,000 maples in his 20-acre “sugar bush” a little later this season, according to his wife.
They use old-fashioned taps as well as tubing to collect the sap, which is transferred to holding tanks in the “sugar bush,” which is a stand of maple trees, and then to their sugar shack, where they process it.
“We’ve been having odd weather,” Heidi Wolf admitted. “Usually we have that deep freeze, and then things start to thaw by the end of February. We want that freeze/thaw cycle, where there’s a freeze at night and a thaw during the day. Generally, we have a four- to eight-week window for sugaring season, but sometimes we run to mid-April. Mother Nature controls it.”
“But the sap is flowing, and we will have syrup,” she added.
She said that even though they tap close to 1,000 trees, she does not consider theirs a big operation.
“We’re not very big, but we do make a lot of syrup,” she said.
Producers must boil down between 40 and 45 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
The Wolfs also turn out a wide variety of products made from their maple syrup, which will be available for sale both weekends. Most products also will be for sale on weekends throughout April at their barn-red sugar house, located in front of their house, and their syrup is sold by a few local retail outlets as well.
Wolf said she’s been gearing up to create most of her maple products this upcoming week, so that they are “as fresh as I can get them.”
The Wolfs use their pure maple for their bottles of syrup, molded maple sugar, maple cream and granulated maple sugar.
“I’ve also gone into a more gourmet line, with maple mustards and jellies, coated nuts and popcorn, and maple onion dip mix,” she said. “We’ll also make maple hot dogs, maple cotton, soft-serve ice cream, maple crème donuts, waffles and cheesecakes.”
The Wolfs are eager to share their knowledge of this age-old art with visitors. They started making maple syrup about a decade ago, after they had bought a 70-acre farm and were delighted to find it included about 20 acres of perfect sugar maples. Wolf said her husband had learned as a young boy from a friend’s father how to tap a tree and make syrup in a pot over a fire, and the memory stuck.
“This is his hobby,” Wolf said of her husband, who is a commercial landscaper. “When we first started, we had a wood-fired evaporator, but that’s just a romantic idea, and it’s a lot of work. You’re feeding that fire every 10 to 15 minutes and constantly baby-sitting it. Nine years ago, we got a stainless steel, oil-fired evaporator, so that when he’s done for the evening, he can shut down. Last year, we got a reverse-osmosis system that concentrates the sap before it gets to the evaporator, and it really speeds up the process.”
There are different grades of maple syrup, Wolf explained.
“In the beginning, you get a light syrup that’s mild in flavor – although the sugar content and sweetness is the same across the board,” she said. “But you get a woodsy flavor that’s stronger as the season progresses. Our molded maple sugar uses the lighter syrup, as does our maple crème. That’s Grade A light syrup.”
“The Grade A Medium syrup is a nice balance of woodsy and sweetness,” she said. “That’s probably the most common syrup – the pancake syrup. And the Grade A Dark Amber is the strongest flavor. It’s all taste preference.”
The Wolfs give visitors a chance to taste the sap right from the tree.
“Some people think the sap tastes like water,” Wolf said. “The sugar content is only 1.8 to 3.5 percent sugar. It would take a really sensitive palette to pick out the sweetness.”
The Wolfs also offer a wide variety of other activities during the two weekends.
“We have tram rides into the sugar bush, and we show them the trees,” she said. “We’ll set up a display about the Native Americans, and how they discovered this, and how they made it. Kids can tap into a tree – they can drill holes in a log. We’ll have taps available for purchase if people want to try this at home. We’ll have a craft corner, and Lake View Animal Sanctuary will be here with some of their rescued animals.”
“It’s a fun, free weekend, but dress for the weather because we are a farm, and we do get mud,” she added. “We have four kids, and we know how expensive it can get to entertain them. This is our chance to give back to the community and give families the opportunity to come out and enjoy the day, enjoy the sunshine, hopefully, and enjoy the friendship of others without cellphones and all of the other gadgets kids have.”
For more information, visit: www.mapleweekend.com.