Backyard Sugaring the Permaculture Way: an excerpt

Kids love the sweet oudoor fun of sugaring season.Maple Sugaring is the first agricultural act of spring in the Northeast. It signals the awakening of the plant kingdom, with copious amounts of sap flowing up from the roots of the Sugar Maple,  awakening dormant buds and pushing forth flowers and eventually leaves that will be the solar array of the trees and forests for the season. While humans have harvested sap for thousands of years, we still don’t quite know what is going on, partly because a complex web of variables creates a unique sap run each spring.

The process of collecting and boiling sap has hardly changed since Native Americans began harvesting hundreds of years ago; innovations have mainly come in how sap is moved from tree to fire and how quickly the boil is conducted. But the main process is both simple and timeless.

Native American’s used sharpened stones and later hatchets, hacking a “V” into the trunk of the tree and collecting sap in a wooden trough. Sap was boiled by cooking rocks in a hot fire then placing them into the sap, constantly replacing rocks throughout the night. The natives also relied more heavily on letting sap freeze, which naturally separates water from sugar. The remaining liquid was then boiled off, but took a lot less time to do so. We can till take advantage of this strategy today.

Recreation of a settler's maple boiling campWhen European settlers arrived, so did metal. Buckets were easier to make, maintain, and store. Since metal can come into contact with fire, the boiling process was revolutionized. Large cast iron kettles over fires worked, but wasted a lot of heat. Eventually metal tanks were fabricated to fit perfectly over fireboxes, which channeled fire toward the pan; thus making for a more efficient boil.

Modern life brought us plastic, making sugaring cheaper to set up and maintain. Tubing lines can be cleaned out and reused for several seasons. They are particularly helpful on steep sites and those challenging to access. Tubing systems are now the maple industry’s standard, mainly because agricultural practices have all tended to “evolve” to replace human labor with technology. Today many sugarmakers have even abandoned wood firing, choosing to fire their sap with gas or oil.

This article discusses the basics of backyard sugaring with a permaculture twist. The goal is to help readers explore the numerous decisions needed for small scale sugaring (up to 100 trees) in your backyard. Commercial sugarbushes start at usually 1,000 taps or even as big as 60,000, though a few still folks maintain smaller operations that sell syrup.

Things to Know

I’ve been sugaring on a small to medium scale (as little as 5 trees and a many as 500) for 8 seasons. The following are in my experience the key points to consider before starting.

Sap is 98% water so it appears clear to the eye.

Sap is 2% sugar.
What comes out of the tree is overwhelmingly water, and likely the cleanest water you will ever drink. Do it! Sap is an amazing tonic, and will keep in the fridge for up to a week (similar shelf life to milk). This 2% sugar content is an average, with some trees occasionally giving more. Sugar makers often assume that 40 gallons of sap make a gallon of syrup. If the weather is right it is worth removing any frozen chunks, which are almost entirely water. It will significantly reduce your boil time.

A quart per tree.
On any average season you can expect each healthy mature tree to produce enough sap (about 10 gallons total) to boil down to a quart of syrup. This is a rough figure although seasonal variables make this a very flexible number. So, you can think of 10 trees yielding 2.5 gallons, 50 trees about 10 gallons, and 100 trees about 20 gallons.

One tap per 12” + diameter tree
You should only tap sugar maple trees that are 12 inches in diameter or greater. Because of the increased environmental stress from climate change and other factors most extension agents recommend only one tap per tree, regardless of how big it is. I might make an exception, that you could put 2 taps in trees over 36”.

Runs highly variable
No two seasons, and no two “runs” (when sap flows) are alike. The basics are that sap runs when temps increase above freezing (32 F) and stop when they drop below freezing. Yet, it quickly gets more complicated that that, as sap flows act much like a faucet, where they can run slowly or rather quickly. A day with temperatures that barely get over 32 F is a slow run; and it seems that over 45 F the run also slows.

The ideal run starts with freezing overnight temperatures, dropping down into the mid 20s. Then a quick warm up in the morning follows with temperatures reaching around 40 degrees before a long descent back into freezing temperatures. All this being said, the backyard sugar farmer cannot control these variables. So, sugaring teaches us patience and flexibility very well. It also forces us to pay attention to the wonderful subtleties of the natural world.

Syrup is 67% sugar.

Finished syrup ready for sale

Sap is most often boiled down to syrup of 67.7% sugar. This ratio is shelf stable, requiring no refrigeration if bottled properly. Any less sugar and the product will mold at some point, whether in weeks or months. Any more and the syrup begins to crystallize.

Scale: Where to begin?

It’s easy to tap trees; the key is to consider ahead of time how far you’d really like to go. One approach is to consider how many gallons of syrup you’d like to produce. Since a tree provides on average, a quart of syrup per season, a starting point would be that tapping five trees would provide a gallon of finished syrup. If you heat your home with wood you can easily keep up with this – adding a bit of sap with each run and then finishing your gallon at the end of the season.

Our rig: used sugar boiling pan over concrete blocksOnce you get over 5 trees it begins to get more complicated. You will likely need to bring your boiling outside, as the amount of steam coming off a boil could do damage to your home. Besides prefabricated rigs that you can order from supply companies, the easiest (and cheapest) backyard rig starts with cinder blocks, readily available at local hardware stores and easy to create any dimension possible.

As for boiling pans, a restaurant supply company can provide a 6” or 8” deep “hotel pan” in a variety of sizes, which can work quite well. Multiple pans allow for you to begin tapping 10 – 40 trees with ease. Beyond that; you will likely consider sourcing a local welder to fabricate a pan, or purchasing a used pan from a sugaring supplier – our set up is a 24” x 48” pan that is 10” deep, part of a set of pans we purchased used from a sugarmaker.

We currently tap 50 trees but plan to get near 100, which should be no problem with the size pan we have. A break down of costs, for our set up, is included in the sample budget below.

Buckets vs. Tubing

Once you’ve determined how many trees you’d like to tap, the next step is to decide on the method you will utilize to collect sap. This decision includes thinking of what materials you prefer (metal vs. plastic), the aesthetic you’d like in your sugarbush, and how you want to use your limited labor.

Classic sugaring bucketThe basic choice is to set up buckets to collect the sap, which you’ll need to empty and move to the sugarhouse. This can be labor intensive, though on a gently sloped piece of forest with good access, a single person can easily harvest 100 buckets in under an hour.

Traditional buckets are made from either galvanized tin or spun aluminum. The bucket contains a hole that hangs on the spout, or spiel, which is pounded into the tree. A lid is also part of the set up, to keep debris and rain from falling into the bucket. Because the maple industry has largely adopted tubing systems, there is currently very limited production of new buckets. A set of bucket, spout, and lid could easily cost $20 – $30. Luckily, since so many commercial sugarermakers have abandoned buckets, used ones are relatively abundant, selling for $8 – $12 a set, though it does take a bit of hunting around to find them for sale.

A bucket system can be easily constructed from locally available materials but utilizing food grade 5 – gallon buckets. These buckets are placed on the ground beneath the tree and a plastic tap and short piece of line connect tree to bucket – through a hole drilled in the bucket lid. A 5 gallon capacity means you won’t ever have to collect every day – a nice side benefit. Sometimes if two or three trees are really close together they can even share the same bucket.

There are many variations on bucket systems that deviate from these basic examples; the key is to keep the sap clean and isolated from outside elements.

Laying tubing takes some skill and practice.Where access, steep slopes, or limited time prevails, tubing systems are the natural choice. Tubing is available from sugaring supply companies (who have manufactured it to a 5/16” size – making local hardware stores useless for fittings!) at a pretty cheap cost, around .10 per foot. You can use tubing to drop into buckets or tanks as mentioned, but tubing is best utilized by collecting trees from the top to the bottom of the slope along one length.

“Drop lines” consist of a spout and short length of tubing, that are teed into the main line moving downhill. Most tubing lines are 5/16”, though when multiple lines come together a “mainline” can be added, usually ½” or ¾”, to accommodate the increased volume. A tank at the bottom of the line allows for a single collection point, and is ideally right at the point where sap will be boiled.

Spouts

Best spout ever...When shopping for taps you will find two sizes; 5/16” and 7/16”. It is widely recommended that 5/16”is used, since you are wounding the tree in tapping it, and the smaller size won’t affect the amount of sap collected, yet will allow the tree to heal faster.

There are many types of spouts made of metal and plastic. We like to hunt for the old Canadian spouts with the name “SOULE” stamped on the spout – they simple hold up the best in the elements.

Tapping the Trees

Proper position of spoutIt is worth purchasing a bit from a maple supplier. You will have it forever and it is specially engineered to leave a cleaner hole, critical to helping the tree heal itself. Tapping can be done anytime from early to late February (at least in Upstate NY) up through the end of the season in late March to even mid-April some years. The key is to avoid leaving taps in longer than six to eight weeks, as the tree will naturally heal itself around the tap hole and you will find the tap almost impossible to remove. Taps should be removed as soon as trees break bud, if not sooner.

To select a spot for tapping, first examine the entire tree. Is the crown complete, and does is appear healthy? Avoid tapping areas that appear diseased or damaged. If the tree has been tapped in previous years tap the opposite side from the most recent hole. No trees smaller than 12” should be tapped.

Drill with a high-speed battery drill about 1 – 2” into the tree. The goal is to get through the sapwood and slightly into the hardwood center of the tree. Insert the tap and hammer lightly until the tap is snug in the hole.

The Run

When cool nighttime temperatures (below freezing) are followed by days when there is a rapid warming above freezing (ideally around 40F), a run will occur. Checking your buckets or storage tanks becomes an exciting daily chore, and teaches the sugarmaker a lot about the subtle dynamics of the awakening spring. No two runs, and no two season are ever a like. There will be days when you are overwhelmed with sap, and days when you are surprised how little comes out of the trees. This is perhaps one of the biggest joys of sugaring;  being in tune with the seasons and the incredible dynamics of the temperate forest.

Collection & Storage

Filling boiler with collected sapAfter a run, sap should be collected and boiled as soon as possible. If temperates drop below freezing at night, your sap will be effectively refrigerated and will last many days until you are ready to boil. Sustained temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees F can cause sap to spoil in as little as 24 – 28 hours. Spoiled sap will appear cloudy and taste bad. It is easy to keep a storage tank cool by piling snow around it, keeping a lid on it, and sheltering it from sunlight. Over the last 8 years I’ve only had one batch spoil, when the temperature was around 60 degrees for three days straight.

Boiling

The major time and energy suck of sugaring is in the boil. You can maximize efficiency through several strategies. One is to outfit your backyard sugaring rig with a stovepipe, as a six to eight foot rise will provide natural draft and keep the fire burning hot. Some folks install a small fan to blow air through the fire as well. Try to construct the evaporating rig as airtight as possible to direct the flow of air.

Tending the fireThe reality is that sugaring takes time. Expect to get a fire rolling and be keeping watch over it for many hours. This provides a great excuse to have a party, and share the fun of standing in the woods boiling with friends and neighbors. It can also be a productive time to work on projects; we spend time inoculating mushroom logs while tending the fire, which doubles our usefulness. There is also something to be said for sitting quietly in the forest, listening to the sounds around you as the fire hums along. It’s a wonderful time.

Finishing

No matter what rig you’ve set up, it will be near impossible to bring your sap to that magic 67.7% number on a fire-driven set up. Likely you will boil it as much as possible over the fire and then finish on a propane or electric stove, where it can be closely monitored and the heat source can be easily adjusted.

You know you are finished when the boiling temperature reaches 219 degrees F (the boiling point of syrup) or with the use of a syrup hydrometer, which will measure the sugar content of your liquid. It is critical to get the syrup as close to the magic number, or you may risk mold formation if under, or crystallization if over. Moldy syrup can always be revived by bringing it to a boil and skimming off the mold, so its not that big of a deal, in the end.

Remain vigilant as you boil both on the fire and stove; when the level becomes too low or toward the end of finishing it is easy to scorch or burn the syrup – which is a sad fact, indeed, to have your product ruined after s many hours of work!

Bottling

The finished product goes into mason jars.The best method to preserve your backyard syrup is to can it in mason jars. Sterilize the jars and lids in boiling water then just pour the freshly boiled sap into the jars once the sap is between 180 and 219 degrees. If you don’t want “sugar sand” to settle in your jars, use a cloth filter before canning. Pint and quart jars are well sized for storage. Leave a half-inch head and turn upside down a few times right after you fill the jar and place on the lid and ring. The jars will pop and vacuum seal as they cool. No water bath is required. Jars should be hot when you pour the sap in them as the hot sap can break the jars if the are cold.

Permaculture decisions

While sugaring is a timeless practice and has much iteration I wanted to comment briefly on how my background in Permaculture has affected my methods, though the conclusions I’ve come to are not necessarily unique to Permaculture thinking.

1. Small scale (non-commercial) is most sustainable

In my opinion, tapping 5 – 100 trees is the most sustainable in terms of personal health and well-being. It becomes really difficult to scale up to a commercial operation without compromising values. For instance, most of the larger producers utilize vacuum systems that actually draw up to 25% more sap from trees; which is questionable when considering the long term health effect this might have on the trees. It also takes an incredible amount of wood to boil the sap from so many trees, which can compromise efforts to thin the woods in a healthy way. In Permaculture, we differentiate between agricultural systems that are appropriate for scaling up to commercial production, versus those who are better on a scale to produce mostly for personal consumption (with a small surplus to share)

Small-scale, non-commercial operations that utilize waste wood (see below) are better able to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient systems.

2. Climate Change makes sugaring even more variable

Sunset view from the boiling campThe spring thaw has always been highly variable, but our changing climate provides another layer of complexity when sugaring. There will likely be banner years and really poor years, as well. Some experts predict that sugarers in upstate New York will be tapping closer to Christmas by the end of the century. And, the Sugar Maple itself is projected to do poorly with climate change, as the seeds of the tree need at least 120 days below freezing to germinate. In much of New York, at least, the Sugar Maple population is projected to decline significantly over the next 100 years. This is sad fact in the context of the long tradition and legacy of sugaring. Yet we can work to limit negative effects on remaining stands, attempt efforts to support maple regeneration, and enjoy and celebrate this wonderful process while we can.

3. Practical Matters: Relative Location & Gravity systems

My background in Permaculture led me to think a lot about the principle of relative location is setting up multiple sugarbush systems. Making use of gravity saves a lot of time and effort – especially in tubing systems. But even when collecting buckets, it makes sense to start at the top of the hill, and work down. It’s also well worth putting the sugarshack (the place you boil) in as close a proximity to the woods you are tapping, and ideally at the bottom of the hill. We debated several locations on our farm before ultimately deciding that proximity was the most important factor in our planning.

4. Ethical use of Materials

Scrap wood heats the boiler.In Permaculture, we try to recognize that outside materials that are not biological in nature always come from somewhere else, and take energy inputs (fossil fuels) to create. It is thus important to invest into durable materials that are long lasting. While it’s cheaper (at least short term) to use plastic buckets, we know they won’t last nearly as long as their metal counterparts. We can also make use of used materials (old metal buckets) that in addition to standing the test of time, don’t increase demand for new manufacturing.

5. Wood: Waste = Food

Sugaring takes a lot of wood for boiling, period. So where we source our wood can have great implications not matter what scale we are working at. Since we’ve scaled our system to a smaller (100 tap) operation, we are able to make use of waste materials as our firewood; each season we head to two local saw mills and purchase a few trailer loads of black locust slabs (from one) and the ends and scrap of Red Oak (from the other). Pine and other softwoods are also good candidates for a sugar fire, since they are not appropriate for burning inside the house. It has been our decision that all sugaring will be done with wood that others consider waste, as it is an appropriate use of resources.

Further, good forest management can also be arguably provide a good source of wood for sugaring. As much as many landowners would like to conduct timber stand improvements, which are a boon to forest health and necessary due to a long legacy of forest abuse, it’s hard to find the incentive to conduct these thinning. The promise of sweet syrup is enough to get anyone out of their chair and into the woods.

Final Thoughts

Author Steve Gabriel teaches school children about maple sugaring.Maple Sugaring is a timeless and rewarding practice. It offers an opportunity to connect with the wonders of the spring that, while reaping a sweet reward for our efforts. While some initial investment is needed, the right choice of equipment and system design can offer decades of harvesting success. If you have further questions or discussion points, don’t hesitate to email me at steve@agroforestrysolutions.com.

This article is an excerpt from an upcoming book by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel, titled Farming the Woods: Temperate Forest Farming & Permaculture Strategies. The book will be published in Spring of 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing. You can read more excerpts, and support the book through our fundraising campaign by visiting FarmingTheWoods.com

Further Resources

Cornell Maple Sugar Research & Extension: http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/

Backyard Sugarin’ by Rink Mann (great book on the basics!) http://www.countrymanpress.com/titles/BacyardSugarin3.html

The Maple Sugar Book by Helen & Scott Nearing (best if read by the boiler!)
http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_maple_sugar_book

Suppliers:

Bascom’s Maple, NH – http://www.bascommaple.com

Dufrense’s Maple, MA – http://www.berkshiremaple.com

Leader Evaporator, VT – http://www.leaderevaporator.com

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