Family members of ours, depicted here sugaring the old-fashioned way, with buckets and a team of oxen. Was the syrup they made organic?
If your family is anything like ours, no matter how many gallons of maple syrup you made on your backyard boiler last Spring, it is close to being entirely consumed by the time August rolls around. Maple rationing is hard! Time is tight. The kids are hollering for pancakes. And you keep forgetting to visit your local sugarhouse. Are you with me? You are at the supermarket, standing in front of that teeny-tiny local-food section, perusing your options. You see a bottle labeled “100% Organic Maple Syrup.” We’ve all been there.
“But, wait! Isn’t all Maple Syrup Organic,” you think, “regardless of whether it’s certified?”
“Not necessarily,” says Susannah Walsh Daloz, Former Director of UVM Farmer Training Program, Candidate for Masters in Food Systems at UVM, and our favorite go-to for all questions agricultural. That’s because “organic standards,” says Daloz, “aren’t just about avoiding synthetic pesticides and herbicides, practices that may not generally be used in maple syrup production,” but also regulate how farmers manage the land.
Sure enough, a quick Google search turned up this document, Vermont Organic Famers’ “Guidelines for Certification of Organic Maple Syrup & Sap.” According to Daloz, this was the right document to find, because Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, an arm of NOFA Vermont, has the power to certify agricultural products, including maple syrup, as UDSA Organic. (There are similar setups in other states and regions around the country.) And, sure enough, there are LOADS of requirements that have nothing to do with prohibiting synthetic pesticides, herbicides, synthetic tree-marking paint, or the synthetic defoamers that can be used in boiling. In fact, in eleven pages, approximately ten pages deal with all sorts of other stuff having to do with sugar stand management.
For example, there is a group of requirements devoted to maintaining or achieving species diversity, including requirements that a sugar stand be composed of at least 20% non-sugar maple trees (red maple count), and that the genetic diversity of other “plants, animals and microorganisms” in the stand be protected.
There are requirements about how to ensure sugar stand regeneration through management of mixed-age stands (sugar stands that have sugar maples of varying ages) or conversion of even-aged stands.
The organic sugar maker must abide by certain tree-thinning and harvesting techniques when removing trees from the stand, must minimize the damage such activities may cause to surrounding trees, and is prohibited from removing debris from the stand. In fact, “material smaller than 3 inches must be left in the woods.” According to the requirements, “[d]eviation from this standard could result in loss of certification.” Wow!
And then there are rules about managing the number, placement and condition of forest roads, limiting erosion of forest soils, maintaining water quality, and ensuring that any grazing animals permitted entry into the bush don’t cause lasting damage to it.
Guidelines as to how to tap the trees (as shallow as possible), where to tap the trees (staggered both vertically and horizontally from prior taps by specific distances) how many taps can be placed in a tree (never more than 2) and whether taps must be removed season-to-season (yes, always, no matter what) are quite lengthy, as well.
And we haven’t even gotten to sap storage (no galvanized anything, ever), syrup making (lead-free soldered boiling equipment only), bottle labeling (don’t get me started) and proper washing and disinfection of all of the above (summary: no matter what, rinse, rinse, rinse).
At this point, I’m wondering if ANY maple syrup is organic by these standards unless labeled as such. And yet, I’ve spoken with several smallish sugar makers who claim that, aside from maybe laying off the synthetic defoamers, their farming techniques did not have to change at all in order to meet organic requirements, which they were happy enough to comply with in exchange for the premium they can charge for their product. Were they selling me magic beans, or what? Believable?
“I would absolutely credit those statements,” says Daloz. “Unlike other food production contexts, it was probably never part of the industrial model to use non-organic practices in the first place. The organic movement itself was organized for the purpose of forcing a shift away from practices that were likely generally not applied to traditional maple production.”
And, again, I say “wow!” That’s a whole lot of work to ensure a healthy, sustainable product. I guess that’s farming! Daloz agrees.
“It will be interesting to see,” adds Daloz, “as the maple industry shifts and consolidates, as new pests appear, and as the climate changes, whether non-organic practices become more prevalent in the industry. If they do, organic certification will be even more of a differentiator than it is today” she concludes.
So where does that leave me? Back in the supermarket, with a list as long as my arm. And I haven’t even picked out the maple syrup yet. Such is life. Wish me luck!
The flower of the elderberry, which blooms in midsummer, can be used to make syrup too. While there are cultivars, wild elderberry like this one grows in most of Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada. Making elderflower syrup is a tradition that hails from Scandinavia and Central Europe.
There's been something we've been meaning to discuss for some time now. And that is the fact that maple is only one of nature's bountiful, forageable syrups. Yes, it's true! Here we are, trying to sell you maple syrup making equipment, and we've neglected to tell you that there's so, so much more you can do with your subsistence syrup production. Let's fix that!
Take, for example, the Black Walnut and related Butternut trees: their sap is flowing at about the same time and in about the same places as the maple. That is to say, during late winter and early spring in the Northeastern, Midwestern and Mid Atlantic U.S. and much of Canada. Researchers at Cornell University hypothesize that the sugar content in a black walnut tree is similar to that of a maple - meaning that it would take, on average, 40 gallons of walnut sap to make a gallon of walnut syrup. Like maple, walnut syrup can easily be made at home, and reportedly has a lovely, light, nutty-maple taste. Curious? Us too! While a quick online search reveals that most of what's on the market is replete with corn syrup, we did find some 100% pure black walnut syrup made by some folks in Ohio on ebay. Tempting! And spendy. But you can make your own! Take a year off of maple? Make two syrups at once on your trusty Sapling Evaporator? Or try a maple-walnut syrup and invent something new! (Hint, hint: there's a business opportunity there. The only hybrid available online appears to be maple infused with toasted walnuts. Not the same!)
Then there's the Birch, a tree native to the Northern U.S., Canada and Alaska, and traditionally used to make syrup in Russia, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Conveniently, birch sap starts running in spring proper, as maples are winding down, so you can conceivably reuse your maple tools and equipment on the birch. Not so conveniently, the sugar content of the birch tree is so low, it reportedly takes anywhere from 100 to 200 gallons of birch sap to make a gallon of syrup. Yikes. Birch syrup is not a pancake syrup, but is used to flavor meats and drinks. Reminiscent of amortentia - oh ye of Harry Potter fandom - It has a chameleon taste variously described as balsamic, molasses, caramel, soy and spice. Birch syrup is expensive, but widely available on the market. Our own Alaska is the biggest producer of birch syrup. Considering the work involved, maybe take a taste before committing your time and energy? Or for the not-so-feint-of-heart, fire up your Sapling Evaporator again and just jump in!
Speaking of Alaska, up there they also make Spruce Tip Syrup, not from the pitch of a pine tree, but by harvesting the tree's new shoots in late spring, soaking them in sugar water, and evaporating to consistency. Like birch, spruce tip syrup has savory applications, including dressing poultry dishes, and makes for a great spritzer or cocktail. Oh for some spruce tip syrup for tonight's gin and tonic! Alas, not even the internet is that fast, although spruce tip syrup is available there, and from the good folks at Birch Boy Syrup in . . . you guessed it . . . Alaska. Spruce is another syrup easily made at home, and, admittedly, in small quantities, can be made indoors on your stove in the stockpot. (Then, install your Sapling Smoking Package and smoke yourself a chicken glazed in spruce syrup! See what we did there?) Not Alaskan? Not to worry. The spruce is native to most of the Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada. So next spring, maybe spruce things up a bit! With spruce!
And now were into summer syrups! Like spruce tips, Elderflower and Dandelion blooms are soaked, sweetened and evaporated into syrups. Elderberry bushes can be purchased and cultivated much like blueberries, but, before you spend money, look around, wild elderberries are widespread in most of Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada, and are traditionally harvested to make elderflower syrup at home in Europe as well. Dandelions are traditionally used to make homemade dandelion syrup in Scandinavia and are native to . . . well . . . planet Earth. Both syrups are reportedly sweet and floral and can be used in drinks, dietary tinctures, or as a substitute for maple syrup on waffles or pancakes. Elderflower syrup is widely available online, if you'd like to try a taste first, but read your labels to make sure you're getting the pure stuff - artificial flavorings abound! With dandelions, you are on your own as dandelion syrup does not seem to be commercially available. Not convinced? Give dandelion green apple syrup a try instead! Like spruce, neither syrup requires anything outside of kitchen equipment for small batches. (But imagine you and your closest friends sipping on sweet somethings while grilling on the . . . you guessed it . . . Sapling Party Grill. I think you get the picture!)
As summer turns to fall, think Apple Cider and Hickory syrups! We've made apple cider syrup on our Sapling Evaporator and our Seedling Urban Evaporator to great effect these last few years. And we will be partnering with Mrs. Frugalwoods & Co. to produce some more this September. Apple cider syrup is a hybrid sweet and sour syrup that is great on pancakes and waffles, in drinks, in salad dressings and as a flavoring for meats. It is available at many maple sugar houses, and online from companies like Carr's Ciderhouse in Massachusetts. With a ratio of about six gallons of cider to one gallon of syrup, however, it is easily and quickly made at home from any pressed apples on your otherwise-dormant maple sugaring equipment (mess factor alert: best to keep it out of the kitchen). Like syrups made from sap, apple cider syrup needs no recipe (although we will record our experience this fall and pass it along) but hickory syrup - a versatile syrup made from the bark of the tree and boasting a smokey, woody flavor - does. Here's how to make hickory syrup at home. Or you can buy some from the Lehman family's Virginia operation. Depending on quantity, it looks like you could use your kitchen or your outdoor maple syrup making equipment for hickory, a tree that is native throughout the eastern U.S.
And that's a full year of syrups for you! From maple and black walnut in late winter, through birch and spruce tip in spring, elderflower and dandelion in summer and apple and hickory in fall, we hope we've piqued your interest in broadening your syrup-making horizons!*
*In Asia, the Canary Islands and Coastal South America, syrup is made from the sap of the Palm tree. If you are on a sacred mission to taste all syrups, have no fear. Palm syrup is available online!
Vermont Evaporator Company CEO Kate Whelley McCabe with her brothers, Patrick and Collin Whelley (and Penelope the dog) waiting for the sap to run in late winter of 2016. Remember the cold?
There's something we've been wondering lately from both personal and professional perspectives: Who ARE we backyard sugar makers? Where do we come from? What kind of syrups do we make? Why do we engage in this admittedly extreme hobby?
So we asked! And about 50 of you responded. And now we know a little more than we used to. We thought you might like to know too! So here goes.
First of all, while at least two of the people pictured above are "young" (that would be a backfiring big-sister joke, right there) we syrup makers are diverse in age, ranging from our mid-20s to mid-70s! Like hunting, fishing, gardening, and keeping poultry and bees, this traditional activity seems to be a lifetime sport. Does this help us focus our advertising? Absolutely not - you people are killing me. But can we imagine sugaring into our seventies? You bet! On balance, we'll take it as a fair trade.
Another area of diversity: what kind of syrups we make. Predictably, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed make maple syrup. As do we. But a surprising number of people (4!) responded that they make black walnut syrup! If you know nothing at all about that, you are in good company, and, having had no idea it was so popular, we promise to blog about it soon. A few people responded that they make apple cider syrup, and other responses included birch, spruce tip, dandelion, and hickory. We'll be covering apple cider syrup soon (it's so easy!) but, still, we've got a lot to learn and pass on to you about the world of syrup-making. That's quite a variety!
While the size of our operations vary, most of us produce between one and five gallons of syrup per year, and an overwhelming majority of us do it without the benefit of a sugar shack or outbuilding. Our equipment is quite varied, ranging from pedestrian crock pots to sophisticated drop-flue or raised-flue pans and also including indoor and outdoor wood stoves, cooking pots, hotel pans, various propane burners, bricks and cider blocks, campfires, homemade barrel evaporators, and, of course, a few of our products. Just Google images for any iteration of "backyard maple syrup making" and you'll see what I mean. We're a handy, frugal, resourceful lot, we are.
And we sugar for a wide variety of reasons, as well. For many of us, sugaring is just plain fun. For others, sugaring is an activity enjoyed with family, and, for some, a way to remember friends and family members that have passed on, connect with younger generations, or a way to celebrate a birthday. A lot of us find maple sugaring a good way to get ourselves and our children outside in late winter, an antidote to mud season, or an activity that forces us to relax. Some of us enjoy the solitude of the woods, and the intimacy-with-place that sugaring engenders. Several of us use sugaring as a teaching tool, many of us give away our wares as gifts, and, of course, we all love the taste of our various syrups! One respondent called the activity "addictive," and another quipped, wisely, that "[y]ou have to experience it to know."
And then there's geography. While nearly half of us were from Vermont, also represented were sugar makers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Ontario, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. But even this extensive list is incomplete, for we already have customers in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Quebec as well.
Which brings me to this request: if you haven't already, please tell us about yourself by taking the 2018 Sugaring Survey! It will take 3 minutes. And, in exchange, we'll give you 5% off of any purchase made through the end of July (with coupon code . . . you guessed it . . . "JULY") and report back with even more interested tidbits about who we backyard sugar makers are!
The Maple Sugaring 101 Tree Identification Tool Kit: A Book and A Pair of Sunglasses
It's walk-in-the-woods time here in sugar country. For those many of us without air conditioning, the shade of the trees is a welcome respite from the heat of the sun, as long as you move faster than the bugs do. It's as good a time as any to make good on your goal of identifying some maples (or some more maples) for your subsistence maple sugar making operation! So grab a water bottle, and get out there!
There are about a zillion resources for tree identification, especially online. There’s probably “an app for that,” too. But I'm partial to books. So, last weekend, somewhere in between pulling weeds, finally staining the deck, and reconfiguring the chicken fence (again) to cut down on escapees (and, again, failing) I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower, so it takes a bit more work, but the syrup tastes just the same. And reds are what we have. So we use them.
Red maples are also called “swamp maples.” They live in swamps, bottomlands and uplands in moist soils. They are hearty trees, grow to 50-70 feet tall, and presumably get their name either from the scarlet color they turn in the fall, the color of the winged seeds they produce in the springtime, or both.
Red maples will tolerate a wider range of conditions than the sugar maple, including variations in the climate, so even for us amateur makers, it’s worth knowing your reds, even if you have plenty of sugars. Science suggests they will fare well despite our warming climate. So, as it happens, there’s a little good news to take with the bad.
The leaves of a red maple are from 2 to 6 inches wide. They look to me like they are 3 lobed rather than 5 lobed (lobes are the sections of the leaf), although technical definitions seem to allow for both. And they have a saw-toothed jagged edge to them with not a smooth curve anywhere. For me, that's the key.
The Leaf of the Red Maple: Red Maples are Also Tapped to Make Maple Syrup
Our sugarbush is very dense, so most of the leaves are far enough up in the air that I have to squint a bit to see them. But, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively.
And then there are the sugars. Sugar maples, so named because of the high concentration of sugar in their sap, grow even bigger than red maples, 60-80 feet, and naturally occur in rich, moist soils in uplands and valleys. In addition, however, sugar maples have been planted along roadways and at the edges of pasture lands for hundreds of years, and can still be found thus anywhere that farming is or ever was.
Sugar Maples are the Best Trees for Maple Syrup Making
The leaf of a sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide and has 5 lobes, with a smooth, curved edge where the leaf of the red maple is jagged. (In the Fall, sugar maples are likely to look multicolored, showing green as well as hints of yellow, orange and/or red as their chlorophyll recedes.)
The few sugar maples we have are out in the open, and so have developed a crown that extends far enough toward the ground so that I don’t have to squint or forage for ground-leaves to make my identification. The sugar maple is so iconic. It's as easy as that.
The Leaf of the Sugar Maple
So if you’re thinking about sugaring next spring, don’t underestimate the value of taking a short stroll through your woods to map out your sugar stand, now. Much like the weeds and chickens, this task won't wait forever. The air will cool, and those leaves WILL fall eventually!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.