Originally published as front-page article in the local Broader View Weekly newspaper, March 21, 2013.
“It’s all up to Mother Nature,” said Al Smith. When the days begin to get longer and stay above freezing, and nights are below freezing, the sap begins to flow. It’s then we start to see those long lines of plastic tubing snaking between maple trees in the woods as we drive by. Did you know it takes about 30 to 50 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of delicious pure maple syrup?
While a number of maple syrup producers locally have been in the business for decades, for brothers Allan and Albert Smith, Jr. (formerly Smith Brothers Maple Syrup, now Smith Family Maple Products), the sugaring fever hit in their teens. And they come by it naturally. Their grandfather, Dayton Smith, his brother Ben, and Dayton’s son Albert Sr. (the twins’ father), operated a small evaporator in the early 1970s. Ben’s father-in-law, Aubrey Westervelt, had been sugaring for decades. So, it was only natural the Smiths used his sugar bush, tapping about 250 trees annually with spile and bucket, trees still used by the younger generation. Dayton, Ben and Albert’s initial evaporator was set up in a garage for a couple years. Then, Dayton bought a commercial 2x6 evaporator and set it up at Ben’s farm on Sabin Road. After operating for a few more years, selling by word of mouth, they ended the labor-intensive syrup production and sold their equipment.
A favorite family story is told of a time Dayton, Ben, and Albert, Sr. went to a meeting at Cornell University’s Research Center. They brought along a bottle of their maple syrup to show what they’d been up to in the little farming town of Spencer. On showing their light golden syrup to the Cornell gentlemen, one of the Smiths wryly asked, “Do you know how much brown sugar we need to add to make the color darker?” I’m sure a hearty laugh was shared by all!
Having grown up with sugaring in the family, Allan Smith decided to build a small homemade evaporator in 1992 for his B.O.C.E.S shop class. With twin brother Albert’s help, they set it up in an old woodshed to see if they could actually make syrup. One day, grandfather Dayton happened to visit and discovered the boys’ secret. Seeing their homemade evaporator, he got excited and motivated them to continue their endeavors. The following season, Dayton purchased a 2x6 commercial evaporator for them. They boiled sap the old way, using about a wheelbarrow load of well-seasoned firewood every 15-20 minutes. It took roughly an hour to make about one gallon of syrup. As Smith Brothers Maple Syrup, the brothers tapped annually, selling by word of mouth just as the older generation had done.
In 2010, Allan and Albert, Jr. sold their old equipment and purchased a 2-1/2 x 10 natural gas fired evaporator, capable of producing about 8-9 gallons of syrup per hour. With this expansion in the family business, they changed their name to Smith Family Maple Products. In 2011, they remodeled an old machine shed on their parents’ property into a modern sap house. They love what they’re doing from the mundane aspects to operating the high-tech equipment. And their excitement is contagious! I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the two evenings I spent learning from the Smiths.
Starting in 1992 with about 30-40 maple trees using spiles and buckets, they now have about 10 acres of sugarbush (maple trees), tapping about 500 trees, hoping to add another 500 next year. Initially, they used a hand-turned brace with a 7/16ths drill bit, pounded the spile into the tree, and hung a covered bucket. Later, they tried a chainsaw with an attachment to do the drilling. It worked well, but the saw was a bit heavy to lug around all day. Now, they use a lightweight cordless drill with a smaller 5/16ths bit that is much easier to handle. The smaller hole also causes less damage to the tree.
In 1999, they bought a filter press which does a better job than the prior hand filter to strain the processed syrup of undesirables. Their new sap house, with running water, and hot water at that, is a major change from the original old woodshed. They now have a kitchen area with a work table, sinks, counters and kitchen stove to process their syrup into candy and other sweet confections. Stainless steel containers store the maple syrup before it’s packaged into bottles and made into other products. They’ve added machines to make maple sugar candy, maple snow cones, maple cream (equipment built by their dad), maple cotton candy, and granulated maple sugar. The Smith family is constantly upgrading, hoping in the next few years to add a bottling facility for a bigger and better kitchen processing area.
In 2012, they added a vacuum pump to the sapline which pulls sap off the trees for increased production. With plastic tubing strung between the trees, the pump draws the flowing sap downhill to the large stainless-steel bulk tank. From there, it is siphoned into a large plastic tank on a trailer and hauled to their sap house. Sure beats the days of handling all those buckets! From this large tank, the sap is run up into an insulated stainless-steel storage tank that stands about 15 feet above ground next to the sap house.
From the elevated storage tank, sap is fed downline into the Piggy Back Unit in the sap house which sits above a 1 million BTU natural gas boiler pan. The steam created from the lower pan heats the cold sap in the upper pan. As the sap heats, water is boiled off the sap, condensing it down to the beginning stage of syrup. Hot air is forced through the sap in the Piggy Back Unit with a high-pressure blower, helping bring the sap to boil. Sap usually boils at 212 degrees like water, but that changes with atmospheric pressure. At the time of my first visit, Sunday, March 10th, based on the barometric pressure in the sap house, the sap boiled at 210.8 degrees. As the sap continues to boil and water evaporates, the sap thickens. Reaching about 7 degrees higher than standard boiling temperature, or about 219, the sap reaches syrup stage. Thermometers in the pans are constantly monitored as they measure the temperatures. It’s a very delicate process.
As the boiled sap loses water content, it flows from the Piggy Back rearward pan into the front syrup pan directly over the fire. Floats regulate the sap levels as sap is divided into channels to cook evenly. If it were to cook too hot or too long at this stage, it would blacken and harden like concrete. As it continues to cook, syrup is pulled from the front pan and drips down into a stainless-steel container. The syrup in this container is then poured into the finishing pan over a smaller fire where it is slowly boiled and refined to become the sweet taste we know as pure maple syrup.
All this while steam from the boiling process emanates from the venting cupola above the building, permeating the outside air with the delicious aroma of sweet maple syrup.
A daily log book is kept annually to record temps, weather (sunny, cloudy, windy, rainy, snowy), amount of sap collected and syrup made, the sugar content of the sap, barometric pressure, etc. I asked about the average amount of sap collected daily, and Allan simply looked it up in his log. Roughly 400-800 gallons are collected daily with a total last year (2012) of 4516 gallons of sap equaling about 70-80 gallons of syrup. The high boiling temperatures kill any bacteria that might come along with the sap. They also clean the equipment before each season starts, during the season on slow days with no sap to boil, and again at the end of the season. It is still a labor-intensive venture.
The weather patterns make a difference as to the amount of sap and its quality. A good sap run begins after a cold winter with sufficient precipitation throughout the year. With the dry summer of 2011, followed by a warmer-than-usual winter and no deep cold spell in January 2012, the production of sap was down, though “still pretty good,” and the Smiths were pleased. Allan told me, “Every year’s production is different, and every night’s boiling is different.” They have definitely seen seasonal ups and downs, as does every farmer, but cannot say they have seen an overall “global warming” pattern.
Usually they tap around Valentine’s Day, occasionally not until late February. This year they tapped February 8th and had their first sap run on February 16th. Sap collected in the raw state is about 2-3% sugar; the maple syrup stage is 66% sugar. The lighter grades of syrup are made earlier in the season, with grades darkening as the season goes on. The grades include Grade A light amber, most sweet; Grade A medium; Grade A dark with the most maple flavor; and Grade B dark, a cooking syrup.
I asked about disasters, and they’ve had a few. When boiling, the sap can quickly burn if the temperature goes up too high too fast. What you’re left with is a pan of black goo that sets up like concrete, permanently ruining the evaporator pan. I can sympathize as I once accidentally overcooked some sugar water for my hummingbirds. Turning my back on the boiling sugar water for a few minutes longer than expected, I returned to find it had become a thin layer of solid black concrete in a good pot. I used a screwdriver to scrape hard and long, but got it all off.
The Smith brothers faithfully attend the New York State Maple Producers’ Association every January, the largest convention in the U.S. The two-day event, held at the Vernon/Verona/Sherril High School, brings in speakers and specialists from Vermont, Cornell University, and Canada, etc. Highly educational, it is for anyone who taps from one tree to 10,000 trees. The Smith brothers have been learning as much as they can about the business, including the latest technology available, constantly seeking to improve and grow their business. They also learn about industry standards in order to meet government regulations so they can market their products commercially.
Smith Family Maple Products are sold by word of mouth and at Family Farm Mercantile on Townline Road between Spencer and Van Etten. A few years ago, a woman visiting from Ohio happened to see the Smith’s maple leaf sign on Sabin Road and stopped. Now she faithfully orders maple syrup every year from her home in Ohio! Eventually, they hope to build up a large enough volume to sell online.
If folks want to try making syrup just for home consumption, there are no regulations. Basically, Allen and Albert told me, “You need to boil the sap to 219 degrees, keep everything clean, without contamination, and enjoy! Maple syrup is good on anything!” There are many websites which can provide information, along with Cornell’s Cooperative Extension offices.
Being rather technologically challenged, I was very impressed with the Smith Family Maple Products’ operation. From simple and humble beginnings, it has grown to encompass today’s modern technology in order to produce more syrup, more efficiently.
Sharing about the old ways of collecting sap and making syrup brought to mind stories my mother has shared over the years. The Tillapaugh family of 12 children in Carlisle, New York has made and sold maple syrup for several generations, and my cousins continue the annual tradition today. My mother, Reba Visscher of Waverly, and her youngest sister, Lois Beach of Newfield, readily recall the childhood fun, albeit hard work, of helping their dad and older siblings during the 1930s and 1940s. Lois shared with me, “As the youngest I did look forward to maple syrup time. A lot of hard work, but worth it, with memories forever.”
Their dad and older brothers used a hand-turned brace to drill holes in about 300-plus trees. They’d pound in the spiles from which buckets were hung, with lids placed by the younger girls. When the sap ran, besides regular dairy farm chores, they had daily sap gathering. This involved dumping each bucket’s worth into a holding tank on a large bobsled pulled by a team of black Shires (Dick and Daisy) or Belgians (Bunny, Nell, and Tub) on a trail through the woods. My mother said that if rain got into the buckets it turned the sap brown, and they threw that out. And, they often trekked the woods to gather sap with two or more feet of snow on the ground.
Carlisle’s woods are not like those in our south-central fingerlakes region. Carlisle has rolling hills with limestone boulder outcroppings, and many crevices and mini-caves. With Howe’s Cavern near Cobleskill, the town of Carlisle and Tillapaugh farm also have small caves with nooks and crannies throughout the woods. There was a defined trail for the horses through the woods, but everyone had to walk carefully among the trees. I remember as a child seeing a good-sized cave opening in the ground next to one of the farm pastures, so I can attest to it being an interesting trek to collect sap.
With a love for horses since my childhood when my father farmed with Belgians (and Clydesdales before marrying my mom), I can visualize harnessing the black Shires with flowing white “feathers” on their lower legs, listening to them clop along, stepping high in unison. I can imagine the creaking harness and traces, maybe bells tinkling, the big sled’s runners scraping along a gravel road or gliding atop snow.
At this point, my mother chuckled to recall a day she rode out on the sled carrying the sap tank with her brother, Maynard. When he jumped off as they went up a hill, the sap tank tilted and she fell off, the sled nearly running over her but the horses were stopped just in time. Another time, she got a tiny piece of metal in her eye from a bucket lid. The doctor brought a large magnet to draw the speck out, but she refused to let him, petrified it would pull her eye out! She has no idea how the metal ever did get out of her eye, but there was no damage.
When the holding tank was full, it was taken to the sap hut, and sap drained into one of two 4x8-10 foot evaporator pans over a wood fire. I questioned her about the size of those pans, but she was adamant about the very large size. Considering her memory has not failed her for other details, I saw online there were, indeed, evaporator pans this large. The oldest brothers stayed at the sap hut boiling all night, often around the clock, watching the temperatures carefully with thermometers. Lois also recalls their mother made lunches which the girls took out to their brothers.
My mother agreed with my aunt who said that “when the partially cooked syrup was ready, it was brought to the house in milk cans. Mom would finish boiling it to the correct temperature over a kerosene stove in the summer kitchen, and strain it through felt into gallon glass jugs, mostly for home use, some to sell.” My mom added, “Some syrup was boiled further to make maple candy, or poured over the snow for a sweet chewy treat.”
Maple syrup helped their family deal with sugar shortages and rationing during the Great Depression and World War II. At the end of the season came the hard work of cleaning all the equipment, repeated when the season started.
After the youngest Tillapaugh brothers, Winfred and Floyd, retired and sold the family dairy herd in 1974, they built a modern and efficient sap hut closer to home. Using both pails and plastic tubing, Floyd’s son, Duane, recalls other cousins helping them tap a few hundred trees in a venture which eventually grew to around 1000. “Back then, we put a pill in the drilled hole [to kill] bacteria. I believe that’s illegal now. We burned wood, but Dad rigged up a thing that would blow old motor oil in when it was close to syrup [stage] to make the fire hotter to push it to syrup.” They sold syrup from home in pint, quart, half-gallon and gallon containers, also making maple cream and candy. Their peak years produced about 200-250 gallons of syrup annually.
I researched online articles about the use of paraformaldehyde pills/tablets in the tap hole years ago. Controversy has surrounded its benefits of cutting bacteria and helping the tapped tree heal versus the pills leading to fungi setting in with increased decay versus the fact that formaldehyde was making its way into food for human consumption. Therefore, its use became illegal in the 1980s.
Knowing that Native Americans made maple syrup centuries ago, I delved into their sugaring process. They would make a slash in a maple tree, collecting the sap as it dripped out. Hollowed out logs were filled with fresh sap, and white-hot field stones were added to bring the sap to boil. The Indians repeated this process until syrup stage was reached, or until they had crystallized sugar. When the first Europeans arrived, the Indians traded maple sugar for other products, and taught their sugaring secrets to the new settlers.
Referred by my cousin, Bruce Tillapaugh, a retired Cooperative Extension agent, I contacted Stephen Childs, the New York Maple Specialist at Cornell University. Childs said, “Cornell has a number of resources for backyarders and beginning maple producers. Much of the information is available at . We have a Beginner DVD and Cornell Maple Videos. We hold many Beginner Workshops in the fall and winter. A maple camp is held in June that is three full days of instruction for new commercial producers or small producers planning to expand. There are recorded webinar programs online that interested persons can watch.”
I also found a brochure online for the beginner by a local resident: “Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner” by Anni L. Davenport, School of Forest Resources, The Pennsylvania State University; Lewis Staats, Dept. of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1998.
With a little more research, I learned pure maple syrup not only tastes good, but it’s good for you. It is a natural source of manganese and zinc, important for our immune defense systems. Zinc is an antioxidant which protects our heart by decreasing atherosclerosis and helping prevent damage to the inner lining of blood vessels. It is also known that a zinc deficiency can lead to a higher risk of prostate cancer. Zinc supplementation is used by healthcare practitioners to help reduce prostate enlargement. Studies have also found that adults with a deficiency in manganese have decreased levels of HDL, the good cholesterol. Manganese helps lessen inflammation, key to healing. Just one ounce of maple syrup holds 22% of the daily requirement of this key trace mineral.
Syrup also contains iron, calcium and potassium which help repair damaged muscle and cells. It can settle digestive problems. It can help keep bones strong and blood sugar levels normal, help keep white blood cell counts up to protect against colds and viruses, and maple syrup is not a common allergen.
With all the good it has going for it, 100% pure maple syrup is truly worth all that hard work! Enjoy!