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Making Maple Syrup is an Extreme Sport; An Antidote to Modern Living

Posted by William Farrell on
making maple syrup

But First Let’s Be Honest About Poking Holes in Trees

Someone walks up to a group of meditating maple trees and stabs one, hoping to see a watery solution trickle out.  This is a very first and necessary step on the annual journey of making maple syrup.

And if you don’t like the sound of this first step, just wait because there are any number of steps along the way that might give someone of good conscious a reason not to eat or make maple syrup. 

In fact, one could easily start wondering if the maple syrup maker (“sugar-maker”) really loves her trees at all.  She often professes love for them but then if that’s true, why doesn’t she propose eating more cane sugar or agave nectar or something like that.  This would save her beloved maple trees from injury and stress.   Let the sugar cane plants suffer instead!

Even stealing honey in small amounts from bees seems less injurious than knifing maple trees.

Sure enough, most commercial “sugar makers” aren’t satisfied with a single hole so they put two holes into the most prosperous, longer lived trees.  And it’s not good enough that sap flows freely from the trees based on the weather and internal tree pressure, so many sugar-makers attach the tree to a vacuum pump via pipelines.  In effect, the tree will leak sap as if it’s in the STRATOSPHERE!  No, really.  Some sugar-makers are so efficient it’s like they’ve launched their trees into outer space!

And if you needed more reason to re-consider eating maple and you didn’t think poking holes in trees is invasive enough . . .  sugar-makers that use the most conventional means of all – wood – to boil the sap into syrup cut up entire trees for fuel!  How can that be good!

Practicality and Survival First

But living life as a human means participating in the energy equation.  And that equation starts with understanding that you need to consume first the calories that you burn.  And before you consume those calories you must acquire them efficiently and so on.  And what I’m saying is that we all need to make a living that satisfies at least our basic needs. 

And sugar-makers turn to the woodland and the trees to acquire their “Calories” so as to make a living.  And as owners of small farms, as many of them are, they understand well that they can’t make a living if they aren’t efficient – even if that means putting their trees in deep space.  Yes, in that commercial way maple is like so many other industries.

A Shining Example of Sustainable Agriculture

But in maple syrups’ defense I would argue that its efficiency, by and large, has not hurt the forests or the soils or impaired the quality of the finished product.  Maple offers a shining example of perennial agriculture at its best with few of cultivation’s dangers (which can include soil erosion and compaction, chemical fertilization and salts, aquifer depletion, and more).  So if you want to make food choices that respect earth’s soils, shift your diet toward plenty of maple syrup on a bowl of fruit (perennials) and away from vegetables (cultivated annuals).  You can probably tell I am not a nutritionist. 

But all farms have differences in scale and scope – and care -- so it’s impossible to lump them together.  Supposedly that’s why we turn to National Organic Certification and other programs where farmers pledge to follow high standards of care.  For the most part, following Organic practices helps ensure that the trees, woodland and annual production maintains its splendor.  But many maple producers and consumers alike don’t believe Certified Organic methods offer enough benefit over conventional to justify the added expense.  I disagree and will save the debate for another day.

Maple Production as an Extreme Sport

Regardless of how the woodland is tended and the maple syrup made, small scale syrup production calls upon an awesome array of human capacities to make the season as productive as mother nature will allow.  Maple is best characterized as an extreme sport. 

Generally, most sports require mental strength and physical fitness.  This we know.  But what makes some sports’ ‘extreme’ is that they are not undertaken in a controlled environment like a playing field and these ‘extreme’ sports involve some extra risk of serious bodily harm if things mess up.  Often overlooked is a third factor – insanity -- that makes a sport or it’s sports men or women ‘extreme.’  Let me take a moment to show how maple syrup production might meet each of these elements.

Agree with me that harvesting water (sap) and making food (syrup) in the middle of the forest during February is not a controlled environment.  It’s tough to stereotype sugar-makers because every operation has its uniqueness, but Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong) is always well at hand because the playing field is a hillside or mountainside covered in trees and snow!

Wind storms, prolonged warm ups, squirrel chews, frozen pumps and valves – the perils to the business are too numerous to list, seriously.  And the perils to the farmer are plenty too.  By day the dutiful producer hikes hills or mountains often in deep snow and/or bitter cold checking pipelines and then stays up all night boiling maple without burning the sugarhouse down.  Leak-checking by day and boiling at night might not letup for weeks during an eight-week season and this uncertainty demands even more mental stamina.  And it’s the trouble-shooting of valves and pumps and equipment of all types that requires mental flexibility and constant can-do attitude for as long as each day/night/day lasts. 

Are sugar makers at risk of death if they mess up – like some of these crazy mountaineers climbing straight up mountains covered in one big sheet of ice? 

I do not want to start rumors about a very high incidence of mortality or injury to sugar makers during the maple season because I would like to share my passion for maple production and get more young people involved.  But physical dangers do exist and are felt every year.

Lastly, I need to address how the maple producers state-of-mind (sanity) might qualify the activity of producing maple as an extreme sport.  Surely, trying to turn maple sap from more than a few thousand trees into syrup without the help of reverse osmosis and other modern technologies might be considered insane. Remember, the reduction ratio is 40-50 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup.  For a grove of red maples, this ratio is about 70-80 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup. Wow! That’s a long day and night and day and night of boiling!

Making maple syrup does not require even a tinge of insanity.  I would say it necessitates, rather, a remarkably profound passion or zeitgeist (that shares a border with insanity!! haha).

I really believe that maple syrup producers are among the most passionate group of people I have met.  The passion they show for their work is undercurrent to every conversation I’ve had with them.  No wonder why the industry jokes that a ‘sugar-maker catches a sugar-makers disease somewhere in the first few seasons because she starts by tapping five or ten trees and then keeps expanding until she has five or ten THOUSAND.’

But really, the best way to offer insight into this passion is to describe the joy I regularly find in every season making maple syrup.   It might sound as if my enthusiasm for the maple sport starts with February’s first sap run, but it really starts many months before in the build up to the new season.

My tubing crisscrosses the sugar and red maples on hillsides around our town.  The trees know me.  During Winter’s freeze and slumped sun the trees rest, happy with their decision to drop their leaves months before.  I look at the calendar and think ‘well it should be warming up soon’ but what really gets my blood flowing is the sun getting stronger – undeniably -- each day.  The cold temps ALWAYS give in to the rising sun.  The freezing weather and intensifying sun are a pre-requisite for the movement of maple sap in the tree that starts every new season.

The warming temps of Spring awaken the trees and I begin to get to work.  It’s really a frenzy of activity, never enough hours in a day.  I race to eek out a living in this small slice of time.  There are only twenty to forty nights and days during this window when the nights still freeze at the end of Winter.

Between setting taps, cleaning tanks, repairing lines, running pumps, and firing the evaporator I figure that during a single season I complete more than 10,000 discrete tasks.  I’m not exaggerating.  And I’m a small operation. 

Maple Syrup as an Antidote to Modern Living

More than any industry that I’ve been involved with, the work of making maple syrup is done by people who love the weather, the woodland, who love the trees, and who love the annual ritual of turning sap into syrup. (And love customers too!  Thank you.)

And among the many reasons I make maple syrup is that it seems to cancel out the complete abstraction that modern living has become.  There’s no sitting behind a computer.  I can’t pull up to the drive-thru to put food in my belly. 

The feverish level of activity that starts with each Spring thaw demands so much of my human capacities – physical fitness, mental endurance, close observation of complex systems, problem solving skills, ‘common sense’ and so on – that despite the level of difficulty I am re-energized.  I have purpose, and not just among and for the machines. 

Making maple syrup is an inspiration that I pray rubs off on my kids.  I believe maple can be a way forward, not purely a reflection of our past.. 

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1 comment

  • Mari on

    Thanks for writing this, Bill! I am constantly inspired by how dedicated to hard, practical, inventive work you and Liz are. Maple syrup is indeed one of those products that in its nature and energy is a reminder of the process…like you said, an antidote to contemporary result/convenience based culture. There’s a lot to be said for products like that…there’s patience and process imbedded in them. Thanks for keeping the ideas that you stand for alive and visible.

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