Sap To Syrup: 5 Things We Learned
The idea to tap maple trees came a little late in the season last spring of 2019. I remember when my husband, Jared, presented this idea in March. He explained we’d be crazy not to do it considering maple trees dot our property line and adjacent land. He is the “make it happen” type and when an idea strikes that has potential to either save us money or generate income, he’s all over it.
So we made the quick decision to do it. We bought spiles and sap bags and buckets and cinder block. Jared temporarily repurposed an old storage shed into a sugar shack, built an evaporator and had a friend weld us a simple flat pan. We collected for weeks and were finally ready for our first boil. Being the syrup newbies we are, we knew we would encounter challenges. Lots, of, challenges. The fire was temperamental, the stove pipe wasn’t sealed as tight as we wanted, the boil was taking much longer than expected, we forgot to record amounts of sap and syrup we collected and made, and we didn’t pay attention to what we were spending on all of the random things needed. Then there was that unforgettable moment we picked up the awkward, heavy pan of piping hot syrup when my hand slipped and half of our hard work spilled onto the dirt floor along with half of our dignity. It was a wonderfully humbling experience.
It feels a little uncomfortable writing about this craft we are still learning. We didn’t come from families who have been doing this for decades, we don’t have a mentor to lead us to the promised maple syrup land, and we certainly didn’t have this on our to-do list when we decided to start our hobby farm. But we do live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where we get 300+ inches of snow each year and that means perseverance is in our blood. We have remained resilient through each new endeavor on our hobby farm and feel as though sharing our experiences will help other people in some way. Even if we just make you shake your head and laugh!
This will only be our second year making maple syrup and despite our semi successful first season, we are hooked. It was easy to get started, was very inexpensive our first year, and with last year’s failures in mind, we have some new goals for this season. We want to share 5 vital lessons we learned the hard way that may help you become a successful sugarmaker.
Are you ready to get tapping?
Written by Emily
5 Things We Learned
1. Research, Research, Research
I’m lucky to have a partner who puts in the time to read up on how to do everything we decide to do. Make time to research different ways to tap trees, how to know when to tap your trees, types of evaporators, challenges people have encountered, all of it. Read blogs (like this one!) and check your local library. Here’s one of many websites we found useful: https://www.michiganmaple.org/
2. Ask Around
Chances are someone you know, or someone they know, has boiled sap before. They may be willing to share some knowledge and help you to avoid some simple mistakes. Or if they are still producing syrup, ask if you can take a look at their set-up and operation. We found many answers on this community forum http://mapletrader.com/community/ There’s also a section on that website to buy and sell equipment.
3. Low Cost or High Cost = still get syrup
If you’re on a tight budget, look for used equipment when getting started. Many backyard producers get hooked and will upgrade their equipment and look to sell the older evaporators. There are some good deals out there if you’re patient enough to find them. Check your local craigslist page and facebook marketplace. Or, make your own evaporator! There are many ways to contain the fire needed to boil sap. Cinder blocks, steel drums, old oil tanks, even old file cabinets have been used!
4. Keep Records
We didn’t record a single thing we did last year. If it weren’t for the photos we took that have dates attached, we wouldn’t know when we even began! Be sure to keep a maple syrup log. A notebook, an excel spreadsheet, google doc, whatever way you prefer to record information, just be sure you keep up with it. Set a budget, track your expenses, record the date you began, the sap run, boil date, everything you do in relation to your sap, write it down. You’ll thank yourself next year when you’re trying to plan how many more trees you want to tap because inevitably you’ll want to tap more trees. We plan to use this sap log this year, download it here.
5. Use Other People’s Trees…with Permission
Many people have maple trees that sit untapped in the spring. That means more syrup for you! Check with friends and neighbors who may have maple trees and trade some finished product for access to the trees. This can help appease your addiction once you get started.
Maple syrup season is a short one and well worth the effort that goes into it. Just think of all the pancakes you can drown in your own syrup! You’ll be more likely to ration your own syrup because you’ll understand the labor of love to produce it, but either way, the satisfaction of adding another skill to your homestead sure is sweet.
Have you ever heard of such a thing? It will blow your mind how fantastic the flavor is! It’s absolutely a delightfully honey tasting experience! I think most of us understand that dandelions have a bad rep for being a “weed” yet it has so many benefits for us...
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