And Cheese curds! (Which, by the way, might just be currency here in Wisconsin as they can buy lots of goodies. As in, "I'll give you a bag of cheese curds if you let me borrow that ____." - fill in the blank.)
March is way colder than we want it to be. We are deceived by melting snow, longer days, and warm sunshine if we're standing against a south wall. But, if you get out into the day, it's usually a little more brisk, and the chosen wardrobe leaning towards Spring, typically does not include enough layers, down fill or wooly fabrics to really keep a person warm - as wishes can't be fishes. We want so badly to be outside, so this is the best season for the bonfire!
However, when bonfires blaze, mud runs amok! Keep the fancy shoes in the closet and muck around in Muck Boots. I keep my waterproof Uggs going through most of the Spring, because wet feet and just-thawing ground is actually REALLY cold. I want to stay dry and warm - throw fashion to the wind and keep the tootsies warm! Yes, all of this implies, I am not trotting around on pavement or cement sidewalks. Out here gravel is god in its squishy smooshy kinda way.
Gravel, however, is not god on the Sugar Trail! Mud rules! Rich black soil rises up between layers of humus soaking up every drop of melting snow. There is no gravel out there, so when the temps start rising enough during the day to bring on the sap run, the trail for collecting gets pretty durned muddy.
Lots of folks prefer to tap with tubes that run by gravity to holding tanks at a lower level. Then they pump to empty the tank and avoid the hard hand-work and mud. William and I are purists and prefer to hand-tap and hand-collect which means mud. Plus, we're not crazy for all that plastic tubing junk in the woods. Deer get snagged in it, and it takes away from nature's aesthetic.
Despite having some opinions about syruping, we're really just newbies in the world of maple syrupers out here in Wisconsin. Below you see our first boiler from a few years ago - "just for fun" that first year to see if we enjoyed the work of tapping trees. I liked standing on the board to keep my boots clean (remember the name of my farm - the Driftless Dirt Farm - meaning NO DIRT in the house and no mechanical farming), and William immediately saw the INEFFICIENCY of our cute new system.
What does every engineer-brained farmer do when something isn't right? They set out to fix the problem. Within a day or two, William rigged up a new boiler and borrowed a pan from a friend which worked SO MUCH BETTER than the tiny restaurant chafing pan, but still not slick enough or efficient for William, who unlike a dirt farmer, thinks in massive volume. I was content making a gallon of syrup, but William saw the trees gushing and new he wanted more!
As sweet as syrup sounded, and as much as I liked the new pan and more efficient system, the OCD girl that I am couldn't help but look out over the March mud of my driveway and gardens, and recall a book I read about a woman leaving New York City to marry an organic farmer - something called The Dirty Life by Krista Kimball - and wonder what I was getting myself into! Look at that mess! Ma and Pa Kettle must have moved in to syrup that year.
While I was lamenting the mess, yet perfectly content with our new system knowing it wouldn't last forever, little did I know, William was pondering the efficiency/inefficiency problem. You gotta have enough sap to fill a pan and a big enough pan to make a "cook" worth it. A day or two later, when I was at work back when I was still teaching, William sent this photo of a drawing in a text message along with the words, "I ordered a pan."
He also sent this message to all his buddies, who worked together to conceive a plan, and within a few days, the new stainless pan was collected and the guys set to another welding project! I thought this new pan would be for the following year's maple season as it seemed we were nearly done, but no! By the time I got home from work a few days later I was shocked to find the big shop door open, and the guys nearly finished with the burner. I figured we had already experimented enough that season, but we were just beginning!
The boiler was welded together, the chimney built and assessed, the pan positioned and filled, the fire lit, and a "cook" officially started all in a few hours!
And somewhere along the way that day, there were sandwiches!
Yep, way more efficient! And, you'll notice the operation moved to Lake View from the Dirt Farm. Likely, William saw that worried look on my face that said, "How will I ever clean this mess?" There's more room for messes at Lake View Farm!
Later that evening, not even two weeks from when we set up the little chafing pan and steel stove, a shiny new pan was full of simmering sap, and we settled in to celebrate with a Wisconsin BEER - Farmer's Daughter from Lucette Brewing in Menomonie is one of our favorites.
Now, we're pretty happy with our old-fashioned system. Whenever a fire is burning outside in March it becomes a fun community event. We like harkening to simpler times when work was awfully hard, but everyone came together to help. Our neighbors have a full-on "Sugar Shack" built around a huge arch boiler, and they would probably agree that it's fun, but they built themselves a little bit bigger pile of work...and need a way bigger pile of wood to get it done.
This is the place where spring time gatherings are spontaneous, everybody stands around the fire enjoying the intoxicating aroma of maple, and jabber away the hours. (NOTE: These photos are pre-COVID.)
After sap reaches a syrup boil just shy of 219 degrees, it gets pulled off the fire, filtered and poured into a large keg or stock pot to be finished and bottled. Instead of testing for temperature, most maple producers use a hydrometer to measure Baumes. This has something to do with density of sugar to water. I'm not entirely clear on this.
One year I got turned around by the numbers, and just kept finishing, finishing, finishing. Typically, once I get the syrup to our bottling station, I bring it back to a boil and cook off just a bit more water until it reaches 32 on the hydrometer. What I hadn't realized was that it came in already a little sugar heavy, but, misreading the hydrometer, I thought it was actually light, so I kept cooking it down. That day, with a screw loose and my head on backwards, I was being a real nincompoop.
Opps! This one went too far! Heavy syrup, high heat, and we had to dilute it to bring it back down to the right sugar density. We certainly are not pros like some of our neighbors Pittman Maple Farms, S & S Sugar Bush, but we sure have fun!
William got the cooker out a couple days ago and sterilized the pan and pails in boiling water. The weather will be perfect to get the trees running - 40s during the day and just below freezing at night seems to be the switch to start nature's sugar drip maple drool!
Yesterday we headed out to the Sugar Bush with our taps, pails and a chainsaw. Besides tapping, clearing trees across the trail and hauling wood back to cook the sap is also part of the game. After the taps were in we listened...tap, tap, tap into the pails the trees dripped. I might be ready for waffles soon! As of today, we have about 150 trees tapped. Our first week testing this idea a few years back we started with 10 trees!
If you show up at the farm store next Saturday, March 6th, the fires will likely be burning under our first maple cook of the season. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for the latest news. Syruping is a fickle business as snow, rain and wind tend to influence/slow the sap run. Sometimes, surprisingly, the trees will run in a gush when I would guess it's too cold, then weirdly slow on a warm windy day.
There's a little Wisco fun for you! Now haul out some frozen cheese curds, plop 'em in the fryer, grab a six pack and head to wherever you see steam rising. You know you'll find a party!
Enjoy this lovely Spring weather!
Sending love to you all,