STRAIGHT CREEK VALLEY FARM
Did you know that:
Maple Syrup is a 100% natural and organic product.
Maple Syrup contains as much calcium as whole milk.
Maple Syrup has only 40 calories per tablespoon, while corn syrup has 60.
Maple Syrup is rich in minerals such as calcium, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, and iron.
Maple Syrup contains vitamins B2, B5, B6 and niacin as well as folic acid.
Maple Syrup even contains trace amounts amino acids, the basis of protein.
In short, did you know that maple syrup is good for you? Well, I never knew these things until I
decided to learn about the trees on Straight Creek Valley Farm. The Walnut trees were the easiest
to identify. In the late summer their branches were laden with walnut hulls and by late fall, as the
hulls rotted away on the ground, the walnuts were everywhere. I slowly began to identify other
trees on the farm, and as the leaves on a few towering trees turned bright yellow in the fall, I
realized that Straight Creek was also home to maple trees. I looked at the leaves, and typed them
as true Sugar Maples. The leaves had the typical Canadian flag, maple shape, and their edges
were smooth, not serrated. I was going to be in business! The maple sugarin’ business that is.
So our first fall living at Straight Creek, as we made our usual explorations, I carried twine and
circular red plastic raisin canister lids and I marked eight of our largest Sugar Maples. I read Carla
Emery’s Sugar Tree article in the ninth edition of her book, The Encyclopedia of County Living.
This book is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in things country. This last edition even
contains references to many fascinating internet sites. I also read and reread the third edition of
Backyard Sugarin’ by Rink Mann, in which he describes wonderful variations on the maple syrup
making process from start to finish. I gathered my supplies and then I waited until the late winter
weather was just right. I knew to wait for freezing nights followed by sunny days in the forties, and
on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, 2006, I tapped my first tree.
I must be honest with you here. “Sugar bush” is the maple sugar term for the trees one taps for
sap. My first sugar bush was not at Straight Creek. It stood, as a solitary giant, right outside our
old city house in Cincinnati. For seventeen years I had lived in the house, not even knowing the
treasure that grew outside my door, but once I learned to recognize Sugar Maples, I knew that this
tree would be the first tree I would tap. I reasoned that by tapping this city tree, I would be able to
measure it’s sap flow daily, gather up the sap as often as I could, and learn as much as I could
before I tapped the trees at Straight Creek. It was hard, at first, only living at Straight Creek on the
weekends, but our patience paid off and by the fall of 2007 we put the city house on the market and
moved to the farm.
But back to sugarin'. The first tap that we used (Greg helped me set the tap) was also somewhat of
a special tap. It was an old iron tap that we had bought years before at a flea market, simply
because it only cost fifty cents and felt like a good thing to own. I took the tap off of the treasure
shelf where it had been sitting for years and we put it to work. Greg pulled some loose bark off of
the tree, to get down to solid woody material, and used his cordless drill to drill a 7/16 drill bit one
and a half inches into good wood. We set the hole about two feet up off of the ground, right over a
large root and right under a large overhead branch. We had learned that this is where the sap
flows the best, up from the roots to the branches above. Greg drilled up at a slight angle so that
the sap would tend to flow down and out, aided by gravity. He then gently tapped the spout with a
hammer, so that it sat securely in the drilled hole. As soon as the tap was set, sap began to drip off
of the spout’s tip at a steady drip, drip, drip. I was thrilled!
My sap collection system was a combination of the ones I had read about. For a wonderful internet
resource, check out The Ohio State University Extension Bulletin # 856. I used one gallon, plastic
milk jugs that I had been gathering for the past several months. I kept the screw tops on the jugs,
but made a small dime sized hole, up by the neck of each jug, on the side opposite the handle. I
bought several feet of clear plastic tubing, whose inside diameter fit snugly over my tap spout. I
then set one end of the tubing over the spout’s end and inserted the other end into the dime sized
hole in the top of my gallon milk jug. I placed the jug on the ground at the tree’s base and used a
bungee cord, that I ran through the jug’s handle, to keep the jug from falling over and to secure the
jug to the tree. Greg and I stood back and listened in amazement to the steady drop of sap into the
jug. It was as though we had turned on a spigot.
We set the tap after work on Tuesday, February 14th at 6pm. At 11pm that night, I replaced the full
jug with an empty one. By 6am the following morning, the jug was filled again. I stopped by the
house at lunch time and replaced the jug again, and did so again after work. Within twenty four
hours I had four gallons of maple sap from the tree in the city house's front yard! But I had
completely lucked out. The weather was perfect sap collecting weather, warm days followed by
freezing nights.. Thursday, however, the weather turned colder, and the night time temperature
dropped into the single digits. The sap flow slowed and by Friday, the high was only in the low
twenties, but the sun still shone and some sap still trickled out into my jugs. By Sunday I had seven
gallons of clear maple sap. It tasted like mildly sweetened water.
As soon as each jug was full, I taped up the hose hole, and placed it into my kitchen refrigerator.
Whenever someone passed through the kitchen, I’d fling open the refrigerator door and show off
my collection of full jugs, until early Sunday morning, when it was time to head out to Straight Creek
Farm for the sugarin’ process. I had read that I would likely get about half a quart of syrup from my
seven gallons of sap. I was ready to try to cook down my first batch.
It was a chilly five degrees out the first thing Sunday morning. Greg built the fire in the wood stove
to heat up the cabin and I set to putting my sugarin’ apparatus together. A friend, who owns a tire
store, had given me a truck wheel, measuring about twenty six inches in diameter and about
sixteen inches tall. I set it up on four rocks, so the fire could feed from the bottom. I then started
my fire using pine cones as tinder. I placed a grate on top of the rim, and then set my stainless
steel formerly-lasagna-now-sugar-pan on the grate. Based on everything that I had read, I figured
that it would take about six hours to boil down the sap into syrup. My figuring was not too far off. I
boiled from 11 am until 4:30 pm and ended up, not with half a quart, but with two twelve ounce jars
of 100% pure maple syrup! When the sap level in the large pan was less than an inch deep, I
emptied it into a sauce pan and finished up the last half hour of boiling on the Coleman stove,
inside our very warm cabin. I had learned that the syrup would be finished when it no longer
dripped off of a spatula, but hung in a sheet. At that phase of its cooking down, it would also have
reached a temperature of seven degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water on that
particular day, and yes, the boiling point of water does change depending on elevation and
barometric pressure. I let the temperature of my syrup rise to a temperature of 220 degrees.
I figured that if I billed at my lawyerly rate, each twelve ounce jar of syrup was worth several
hundred dollars, but in reality, each jar was priceless. My very first day of maple sugaring, I
learned that boiling down maple sap is really somewhat like fishing. Greg and I had such a
wonderfully relaxing day, sitting by a hot fire in the bright winter sunshine. We watched fat bellied
robins fly from field to tree and back into the field again. We watched twenty or so turkey strut
across the road down by the barn. We heard the call of the red tail hawks as they circled
overhead. We watched a solitary white cloud roll north, up the valley. The time passed quickly and
we simply felt so lucky to be doing something that was really just a whole lot of soaking up a
glorious day. It was so lovely to be outside, and as a perk, we ended up with two twelve ounce jars
of maple syrup to put on our dinner biscuits. I knew that I was hooked and also knew that I would
have to start cooking up an occasional pancake breakfast!
From this ... To this!!!
As long as we were still living in the city, we knew that we would not be able to tend to the trees and
empty maple sap jugs at the farm during the week, so we had previously ordered two fifteen gallon,
food grade, plastic canisters from McMaster-Carr. Before we left the farm after our first day of
sugaring, we set the canisters up beside two good sized, but relatively easily accessible sugar
maples. One tree was right beside the road and the other was just off of the road down by the
creek. We thought that the fifteen gallon canisters would be quite heavy if the sap ran freely and
they filled all the way up. We did not want to have to lug the canisters through the woods any
farther than necessary., so we settled on the roadside locations We rigged the canisters just as we
had the gallon milk jugs in the city. We tapped the trees about two feet off of the ground, over a
large root and under a large branch. We then ran a section of plastic hose from the tap to the
canister and then secured the canister in place. As we left Straight Creek, after that first weekend
of sugaring, we could not wait to return the following weekend to see how much sap we had
Ripley and the second batch of sap.
Note the two fifteen gallon canisters.
We still continued to tap the tree in our city yard, and over the next week we gathered four more
gallon jugs of sap. Then we woke up early on Sunday morning and headed back out to the creek.
The first tree we checked had produced about five gallons of sap. I was pleased with the five
gallons. It had been a cold week, with temperatures barely rising above freezing, not the cyclic
freeze and thaw weather necessary for a good sap flow. It wasn't hard for the two of us to carry
that one third filled canister over to the truck. We then moved on to check the second tree.
This next tree was located off of the road and closer to the creek. We had taped it on the southern
side, with full sun exposure during the day. This tree had produced more sap, about twelve
gallons, and it was quite a bit more difficult to lug the second canister up from the creek to the
truck. Somehow we managed, and I truly learned the importance of accessibility. I had read that
accessibility was considered to be an important factor when deciding which trees to tap. I learned
that what I had read is very true. I realized that we will only be able to tap this second tree with a
fifteen gallon canister as long as we remain as healthy as oxen. I don't think that we will want to be
lugging fifteen gallons of sap through the woods when we're in our nineties.
So we returned to our fire ring and set to boiling down our second batch of twenty one gallons of
sap. We had the fire going by nine and the sap pan boiling by nine thirty. We boiled continuously
until eight thirty that night, producing five twelve ounce jars of maple syrup. Greg rigged up a sap
flow control valve that we used to create a continuous flow of sap into the boiling sap pan. We
adjusted the stick (regulator) so that it only allowed as much sap to drip into the pan as was
evaporating, thus never breaking the boil and not loosing time in getting the sap to return to a boil.
Greg's sap flow regulator in operation.
Once again, it was a beautiful, cold, but far longer day than our first day of sugaring. We stood by
the fire, thankful for its warmth, until well after dark. Our farm neighbors stopped by to supervise the
final boil to two hundred and twenty degrees. They were pleased to head home with a jar of very
fresh Straight Creek Farm maple syrup. As I fell into my city bed late that night, I wished that I did
not need to wash the wonderful wood smoke smell out of my hair before I headed off to court in the
morning. But even more than that, I wished that I could have stayed at Straight Creek, collecting
and boiling down sap until the sap stopped flowing.
Christine puts two more sycamore logs on the fire.
You can see from the shadows that this is late afternoon and notice how the sap
has already turned a dark brown. That is probably about eighteen gallons of
condensed sap in the lasagna pan.
Another beautiful day at Straight Creek!
Straight Creek Valley Farm