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Nature Watch: It’s fascinating to watch maple syrup processing

One late winter day, when I was hiking the Conservation Trail, I came across some plastic hoses lying in the snow. They ran off in all directions. “What in the world are these hoses doing in the middle of the forest?” I wondered.

It took me a few minutes to realize that these were collecting hoses and I was in the middle of a sugar bush, a woodlot managed to collect maple syrup for processing. Rarely today do you see pails attached to trees that were the traditional means of collecting syrup. Instead, the trees are tapped and the liquid flows downhill through these hoses into a collecting basin.

So we have modernized (and commercialized) a process whose history runs back to pre-Columbian times. The Iroquois and other Native Americans did not have access to sugar cane or sugar beets. Their sweetener was almost entirely derived from maple trees.

My only previous familiarity with maple syrup processing was as an end user. Norman Baker, one of my students at Warsaw Central School, invited me to a sugaring off party at his family farm. There warm maple syrup was poured on snow, immediately turning to a kind of taffy. The taste was delectable, but so sweet that we had to eat crackers to make it palatable.

After my experience with the hoses, I wanted to learn more about the preparation of maple syrup and maple sugar, so I contacted a friend who managed a sugar bush.

Steve Eaton is a retired St. Bonaventure University biology professor who, at that time, remained active on his Shadbush Farm east of Salamanca. There he tended a dozen beehives, raised blueberries and managed a maple woodlot of 540 trees. (He has since given up his farm and moved to Pennsylvania to be near his grown children.)

I spent a day with Steve as he processed 200 gallons of sap into just over three gallons of maple syrup. (He had refined 10 gallons of syrup the day before.)

I had offered to help out in exchange for the opportunity to learn about this activity, but my help consisted mainly of dodging out of his way as Steve calmly turned from task to task. He hauled firewood, stoked the fire, cleaned and filled the tanks, watched the level and characteristics of the roiling sap and syrup, constantly checked the temperature gauges and at precisely the right time drew off pails of lovely brown liquid. Between other chores, he found time to filter this syrup and decant it into quart jugs that look exactly like Appalachian moonshine crocks.

Carefully measuring the color of his syrup, he marked each cruet in this batch dark amber. The darker color signaled the approaching end of the season, with only commercial grade syrup tainted by amino acids yet to come. Producers refer to this decreasingly palatable later brew as buddy syrup, because it is associated with physiological changes in the tree as it begins to bud.

But then Steve offered me a spoonful of his still hot syrup. I found it delightful, the best I had ever tasted. After that I hovered close, fingering to my mouth the occasional spilled drop.

Steve’s operation was much different from that of the Iroquois, who poured sap into hollowed-out logs and added heated stones to boil away the water, but it was far from that of today’s major operators as well.

Large producers like his Portland neighbor, Randy Sprague, who then managed 14,000 trees, use huge oil-fired evaporators and add a stage of reverse osmosis to improve the processing still further. Steve told me that he and other producers receive support from state and Western New York Maple Associations and from agricultural extension programs. He was clearly pleased with his friendly contacts through these groups with many farmers who enjoy this “between seasons” activity.

A good way to gain more information would be to attend the program, “Maple Syrup Production for Beginners,” at Beaver Meadow Audubon Center, hosted by Norm Ameis from Sunny Hill Farm in Arcade. Contact the center at 585-457-3228 for more information or to register. There is a $10 fee for adults.