Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Make Maple Syrup

It has been an unusual season, so far…almost no snow, and the bare ground hardly frozen. We don’t see this as a good sign. The sap flow started much earlier than normal, and we did not finish collecting sap before the end of March. Usually we have cooperative weather (freezing nights and warm days) well into April. By the end of this April we were all done packing, and had removed all taps, buckets, and equipment from the sugarbush. We like to do that well before the onset of black-flies. They are pesky little critters that herald spring in our northern climate, along with the spring peepers. (Pesky may be a timid way to describe how bothersome they can be). Some people actually break out in welts from their bite, which is not soothed by the gentle melodies of the tiny frogs called peepers.

 There have been extreme temperature fluctuations thus far, which have led to very strong sap runs, so we expect a reasonably good season. Some sugar-makers to the south of us have already curtailed operations. Global warming is not doing any of us any good.

 Concentrating sap into syrup over hot pans is as much art as science. It is delicate (at times boring; watching sap boil is not stimulating), and can be panic inducing. The large boiling pans are stainless steel, very expensive, and can be totally ruined in a flash, if burned. Thus, the temperature, consistency, and especially the depth of the boiling liquid are constantly monitored.

 The resulting steam is vented out of the cupola in our sugarhouse. After the fire is set we get a rolling boil -huge clouds of steam form. Some of that steam is captured and condensed in a pre-heater, taking cold 30-40° ambient sap temperature and warming it to about 190° before it travels into the flue pan (a corrugated pan designed for maximum surface exposure to the fire underneath).

The pre-heater is a blessing. It gives us copious amounts of distilled hot water, much of which we use to keep the operations clean, and, in particular, to wash cloth filters used in straining the finished syrup. Maple syrup in its raw state contains malate of nitre (called sugar-sand as it is gritty). This is a totally harmless by-product that is removed by filtering to make the syrup clearer. All that distilled hot water makes for a very relaxing and comfortable dip in the large cedar bathtub at the end of a hard day’s work!

Cruising the sugarbush on an early February morning it was clear that we were in the midst of a good sap run…”two to three to a heart beat”… an expression used by old-time sugarmakers to describe how fast sap flows. At that rate, a 3-gallon capacity bucket will fill in a day, or a long afternoon. The symphony of pings as raw sap drips into empty buckets is music to our ears, especially when it blends with the cry of songbirds and woodpeckers beating bass notes on hollow logs. It also tells you it’s time to gather sap, and we did that from buckets that were nearly full by sundown…making the process very productive.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Virtual Farmer's Markets

Putting America’s Roadside Farm stands on the Internet Super Highway (Beyond CSAs)

Today’s small family farmers and ranchers are our pioneers on the frontlines of the “green” revolution. They all share one thing: They understand the grace Mother Earth bestows upon us in the bounty of her fields, forests, and seas. Some of these new pioneers were born to farming, some have chosen this life to learn ancient crafts & skills, while some just like to get down in the dirt & experience nature.
Whoever they are, whatever their philosophy, and whatever they produce, they share one trait: They are the risk-takers. They are the little guys who take on the juggernaut of agribusiness by using the weapons Goliath cannot, because his hands are tied by the very business practices that made him a giant in the first place. And even more telling, Goliath doesn’t understand the newly aware consumers (once primarily upscale, but now popping up across the social spectrum) whose vocabulary now contains words like organic, earth-friendly, natural, sustainable, free-range, cruelty-free, non-GMO, hormone-free, provenance and- good heavens! – fresh, healthful, tasty, and socially responsible!
The risk-taker It is the niche markets that keep our family, community, and cooperative farms alive: products and produce Goliath can’t bother with – farmstead dairy, hand-sheared and un-dyed wool, hand-culled wild rice; chemical-free, un-hydrated dates; uncooked, unfiltered raw honey; shade-grown organic Fair Trade coffee.
The risk-taker might start out by researching the most profitable niche markets and choosing his product accordingly. Or he might have a passion for, say, goat cheese and will happily tend his goats & develop cheese-making skills for months on end with an eye out for the gourmet cheese market.
But there’s much more to it than finding the right fit. There is the process, the connection that links farmer or rancher or craftsperson to the consumer. The conscientious principles and standards on which they base their labor add incalculable value down the road – to the processor, the distributor, the seller, and, ultimately, the consumer. Each step along the way adds meaning to the entire process. Family farmers and ranchers develop standards for premium markets, form collectives for marketing and distribution, assist one another over the rough spots, influence public policy, challenge outdated regulations or those that favor only the agribusiness giants, and ultimately convince the consuming public that quality produce and product is still available.
The growing popularity of farmer’s markets connects small family farms to the consumers who value them. City-dwellers gain access to fresh foods. Farmers gain access to a wider market for their products. This works well for individuals and restaurants that want fresh local food. One problem that farmer’s markets do not solve is how to get fresh food that is not grown locally?
Good food that is grown by committed farmers is always in season somewhere. A husband and wife tend a small stand of organic medjool date palms in California. Two cousins head out to gather their prized wild rice from a secret lake deep in the woods of Northern Minnesota. Five housewives gossip away the morning picking Wild beach plums along a dusty road in Cape Cod; a shepherd cradles a newborn lamb in Vermont. An entire family, from the babe on her mother’s back to the sturdy patriarch, spread out through orderly rows of coffee trees beneath the rainforest canopy in the mountains of Nicaragua.
Farmer Jill grows a crop of spectacular naturally tree-ripened peaches down Georgia way, but Consumer Jack in North Dakota isn’t going to hop in his car and drive 1500 miles to buy them. She has a number of options to sell her peaches while they’re at the peak of perfection: the local farmer’s market or a charming roadside stand. She might invite customers, locals naturally, to come on over and pick their own. She could ‘put up’ some preserves. Joining a collective to process and market her crop locally or even statewide might be an option. She might venture into subscription farming, food circles, agri-tourism, or contract with local institutions – hospitals, caterers, restaurants. These are all perfectly viable local options
But what if Farmer Jill wants a national customer base? If she’s technologically inclined, she might set up her own web site, and hope her peach-seeker in North Dakota will happen by as he cruises cyberspace. If enough Consumer Jacks want her fabulous peaches, she might invest in a small packing and shipping operation, but one bad crop, one destructive storm, or one shipping strike could wipe out an entire season’s profit.
There’s another option for Farmer Jill: working with a company that provides a ready-made customer base, markets her product to a carefully targeted consumer population across the country, guarantees a fair price, delivers the ripe peach a couple of days after it has been plucked from the tree and is as committed as she to preserving the small family farm, preserving the land for future generations, and growing quality products in a socially responsible way. In order to effectively assist a nationwide network of these small farmers, cheese makers & talented marmalade makers, et al. (i.e. putting the American farmer’s roadside stands on the Internet’s super highway), this company would have to create a brand name that would become synonymous with superb quality, fresh, natural ingredients and distinctive foods made by devoted artisans.
Written by: Richard Hill, Rent Mother Nature