Backyard Sugarin’
Part 1
Why We Do It

Dateline: 7 April 2008

Yours truly collecting maple sap

Chapter One of my book, "Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian," is titled, The Breakfast of Agrarians (Click here to read chapter One). When you read that short story, you will discover that my family makes our own maple syrup. We do this on a very small scale in our backyard using a relatively simple procedure. Our yearly production of the heavenly-flavored maple sweetness is around five gallons a year. But this year we ended up with a harvest of eight gallons. It was a good year for making "maple."

In this series of essays I will introduce you to the idea of Backyard Sugarin’. Then, in the next four essays, I’ll tell you about how we tap trees, collect sap, boil it down, and finish it off. I’ll also provide lots of pictures along the way.

Some people question why I make maple syrup at all. They see it as a lot of work for a relatively small amount of finished product.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy maple syrup?” That’s the kind of question I get from people who have never done Backyard Sugaring. Folks who have made their own maple syrup don’t ask that question.

And then there is the matter of cost. When my coworkers hear that I’m actually taking a few hours off from work to help make a few gallons of maple syrup, they question the economy of it: “Boy, that’s going to be some expensive maple syrup when you figure your time off into the equation!”

Well, it so happens that making maple syrup with my family isn’t about saving money, and it isn’t about doing what’s easy. It’s all about working together as a family, doing something that is productive and enjoyable, which doesn’t cost much money to do. It’s all about getting outside in the fresh spring air, walking through the woods, feeding a wood fire, and standing over a boiling pan of tree sap, while breathing in the maple steam. In the end, we end up with sweet memories and sweet syrup.

So that’s why we make maple syrup.

People who have done their own Backyard Sugarin’ (even if not as a family tradition) don’t question the economics and work involved. They know there is an intangible something that is very special and downright satisfying about making maple syrup. Rink Mann, in his book, Backyard Sugarin' puts it this way:


”I’ve got to say that there is something magical about sugarin’, and if you talk with people who make maple syrup, either in a big commercial evaporator or out in the backyard, you’ll find out there’s a lot of agreement on that fact.

Maybe it’s the time of year—the warm sun climbing higher into the sky, warming the back after a long winter, turning the snow to piles of white corn, turning the brooks from trickles to torrents, starting the maple sap flowing—a sort of hint of the Spring and Summer lying ahead. Maybe it’s the drip drip of sap falling into the buckets, the telltale aroma of boiling sap, or the hissing sound of sap in a rolling boil. Maybe it’s the magic of converting sweet water, as the Indians used to call it, to delicious golden syrup. But whatever it is, it’s there.


My first experience with making maple syrup came, like so many other first experiences, after high school when I headed off to further my education in Vermont. While there, I spent part of a spring day helping collect sap from buckets hanging on trees, and I spent some time watching the boiling operation in the sugar house. I experienced my first drink of warm maple syrup, right out of the evaporator. One drink, and I was hooked.

It would be a few years before I had land of my own with a few maple trees, and a few more years after that before I finally got around to getting my own sugaring operation going. Part of the delay was that I didn’t really think I had enough trees to justify making syrup, and the sugaring equipment was expensive.

Only after I read the book, Backyard Sugarin’, by Rink Mann did I realize that I didn’t need a lot of trees and I didn’t need all the fancy maple-syrup-making equipment. That book opened my eyes to the whole concept of really-small-scale backyard maple production. It is a very good book that I recommend wholeheartedly. Mr. Mann has this to say of Backyard Sugarin’ in his Introduction:


”The real challenge in backyard sugarin’ is to find ingenious ways to collect and boil down sap without spending any money, and I must say I found a whole breed of like-minded people. Backyard sugarin’ builds interesting friendships, a kind of fraternity, I suppose, born of a mutually parsimonious nature.”

I like to think, too, that most backyard sugarers must have a little of the moonshiner’s blood in them. And there are a surprising number of similarities between boiling maple sap and distilling out the old mountain dew. In both cases you’re separating water from something else. In the case of sugarin’ you want what’s left in the pan after the boiling, while with moonshining it’s what comes off that counts. In both cases, too, you try to set up operations in a nice secluded spot, where you won’t get laughed at for your mechanical eccentricities (in the case of sugarin’) or arrested (in the case of moonshining).


The title of this series of how-to essays is the same as Mr. Mann’s book because his whole philosophy of small-scale, home-scale, on-the-cheap syrup making is summed up nicely in the book’s title; Backyard Sugarin’. His informative little book was the inspiration I needed to make my own maple syrup. Perhaps this series of essays will be the inspiration you need to start making your own maple syrup.

To be continued....
Click Here to go to Backyard Sugarin' (Part 2): Tapping Trees



CLICK HERE to check out the Wood family's "Sap to Syrup" DVD


8 comments:

Carla Hays said...

Herrick,

If you ever decide to sell any of the product from your "Backyard Sugarin'", let me know. I'm a diehard fan of your garlic powder, so I'm sure I'd love your maple syrup. We buy it in the little tins at the store, and we love it. I even put it in my coffee sometimes, besides on my homemade from scratch buttermilk pancakes. Sounds like lots of fun. More power to you and your family. Seems like a worthwhile way to spend some quality family time.

Carla Hays

daisyblend said...

It's so true about sugarin'... If you've done it, you don't question it, you just know it's one of those "good life" ingredients. I was born in VT and spent the first 10 years there and I remember clear as day collecting sap from the trees, the 55 gal drum my folks turned into a boiling unit, the way Dad looked in his blue stocking while he managed the fire, the little paper cup with snow covered syrup...
Does the book cover sugaring in the midwestern states? I was under the impression that it couldn't be/wasn't done, but have recently discovered some do it with success. I'm terribly interested in sharing this tradition with my own wee ones without having to move back to New England. :)

~Kaleesha

Missouri Rev said...

I concur that there is nothing like the fellowship and outdoor fun that comes from producing by the sweat of the brows of those we live in close community with, especially family and friends. But there is one more factor that will come into play all the more as our economy unwinds . . . availability. We take for granted the foods that are available today and just assume that in America it will always be there for us. Your recent post on the disappearing wheat reserves should be a real wake up call for all of us. More so, I am sure everyone is noticing the rapid increase in prices. On a more delicious note, perhaps this fall after we have produced several boxes of sorghum lasses’, the Lord willing, we can do some horse trading for some of your backyard maple syrup. God bless brother.

Scott Terry said...

Hi Herrick

I just drew off about 5 gallons a few minutes ago. Still have the taste on my mouth and a little on my beard :) I do think this is one of the few things I'd miss about the north east if I was ever to move. Its my favorite time of the year!

Missouri Rev said...

Scott, Sugar Maples grow quite well here in Missouri and at one time making syrup was quite popular, but for whatever reasons it has largely disappeared.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Carla-
It's good to hear from you. I'm glad you are enjoying the garlic powder. Who knows, maybe someday I'll get a sugar bush and some "real" equipment and make a small business out of it. That would be neat. For now, though, we take the "hillbilly" approach, as you'll see when I show you the equipment we use.

Hey daisyblend-
Rick Mann's book does not discuss making maple syrup in the midwestern states. But I would think the same techniques apply no matter where you live.

Pastor McConnell-
I've never had sorghum molasses and would love to trade with you.

Scott-
Howdy neighbor. 5 GALLONS?! Wow, we draw off 5 quarts and figure that's a good boil. you're a big time producer compared to me. Did you think this was a good year for making syrup?

Don said...

I am new to this website but can see myself spending a lot of time here in the future. We are looking at giving maple sugaring a try this winter and are interested in knowing if there are suitable everyday (less costly) substitutes for the felt filters and preliners. Thank you in advance.

Herrick Kimball said...

Don,

I don't know of any less costly substitutes for the felt and preliners. But I can tell you that we have used the same felt filter with the same preliner over and over for many seasons.