Photograph courtesy of the author
Tell me if this story sounds familiar: when the pandemic started, at first you wondered how long it would last. But after the first couple months it became clear that you should settle in for the long haul and make the best of a bad situation.
For me, that meant homesteading. I looked around at our acres of underutilized land, and I saw an opportunity to finally try things I had always wanted to but never had, due to travel and outside commitments. I know I’m not the only one who took on chickens as a pandemic project. Tomatoes and raspberries too. But the big one, for me, was making my own maple syrup.
I spent the first pandemic winter scheming and preparing, but the random YouTube videos I watched for instruction let me down. I bought all the wrong equipment. Come spring, half my taps produced no sap at all. I tried to evaporate the syrup in a stockpot outside, over an open fire; it filled with ash and took days to cook down. The final product was a thin, brown, semisweet fluid that my neighbors pretended to enjoy. The whole thing was a disaster.
I vowed to do better next season. I needed to learn from experts, so I enrolled in an online class offered by the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The instructor was Adam Wild, who runs the Uihlein Maple Research Forest just outside Lake Placid, and dozens of students attended from all over North America: a guy on Vancouver Island on the West Coast, a woman who had just “married into” a forest in Quebec with thousands of taps, and me, two acres and 40 trees on a little homestead in New York.
It was a classic pandemic experience, 18 hours of Zoom over six weeks. And the class worked. The next spring I made amazing syrup that I now enjoy every morning in my steel-cut oats.
But along the way I learned more than I expected about food as an industry, the technicalities of production and efficiencies. The appeal of making maple syrup, to me, is both mystical and practical; the bone-weary rejuvenation of hard work, the tangible connection to the land and cycles of nature, the need to feed multiple teenage sons. I found those things, yes, but I also couldn’t avoid the tension at the heart of our food industry. That the way we feel about food and the land, the meaning we make, doesn’t always square with the realities of how we have to think about it.
Maple sugaring exists at the center of a Venn diagram that includes farming, forestry and the Industrial Revolution.
I didn’t fully understand this until I visited Uihlein last year, to check out Adam’s operation and see what I was missing in my own backyard setup. Donated to Cornell University in 1965, the Uihlein sugar bush is near the potato research fields of the same family name. The research forest contains expansive natural stands of hardwoods—mostly maple, but beech and birch as well—some trees almost 200 years old, though most are half that.
The Uihlein sugarhouse is a long, low building that emits great clouds of steam when underway. There I first met Keith Otto, a maple technician who showed me the major pieces of equipment, as one would get on a factory tour. The operation at Uihlein uses several vacuum pumps, plastic tubing lines connecting 6,600 taps on 120 acres, storage vats of 3,000 gallons each, two reverse osmosis units and a fuel-oil-fired Quebecois evaporator the size and shape of a locomotive.
“This thing is 1.25 million BTUs,” Keith said proudly. “That’s like 100 backyard grills.”
When Keith fired the burners on the evaporator, it started vibrating and shaking such that I thought the shiny silver machine was about to launch into space. It took only a minute or two for the sap to boil, and the liquid heated so quickly it started to bubble and churn, a Guinness-like foam rising throughout the apparatus. But Keith knew how to manage it—he had experience in breweries and soda factories, and said the work was essentially the same. “The only difference is the source of the sugar,” he told me.
In my backyard, I collect sap from trees and then boil it until it’s syrup. Not at Uihlein. Like other major producers, the Uihlein system has several additional steps. Centralized vacuum pumps literally suck the sap out of the trees; in the pump house, each large blue vacuum contraption is connected to thousands of maples and the sap pours in like a rushing rapid. Reverse osmosis units concentrate the sap without cooking it, by forcing the sugary liquid through filters and extracting a portion of the pure water. This is a key manufacturing step that saves fuel and boiling time. And in the final quality check of the process, Keith used a digital refractometer to measure sugar content. My home setup looks like a child’s chemistry set compared to this advanced biotech lab. The only two pieces of the Uihlein system that I also use at home are a metal testing cup and the basic glass hydrometer—a splurge, for me, at $36—which floats when the syrup is sufficiently dense with sugars.
Seeing the evaporator running, Adam Wild stopped in to continue my tour. Adam is young and dark-haired, as intense about maple syrup in person as he was teaching the class. I mean, he’s really into it. He and Aaron Wightman—the other co-director of the Cornell Maple Program, who manages a forest in Ithaca—even co-host a podcast on maple. It’s called Sweet Talk and topics of discussion include the latest research on polyphenols and nutraceutical extract, and the advantages of opening a sugarhouse in the suburbs.
This focus on technology is not gimmicky; it permeates the operation. At www.cornellsaprun.com he posts a series of charts, updated in real time, so anyone can monitor and follow along: sap flow in gallons per hour, internal tree pressure in pounds per square inch, total sap production by tree. Adam comes to the science honestly, with a master’s degree in forestry. He is doing thinning experiments and vacuum experiments and food-grade sanitizer experiments, 30 line-sensors that wirelessly beam their data back to a tablet in the sugarhouse. There are video cameras watching the twin 3,000-gallon storage tanks so when they start to get too full—as has happened at half past one in the morning—Adam can dress and come in to the facility and turn on the reverse osmosis machines and start concentrating sap before he floods his operation. Three thousand gallons may seem like a lot of sap, but at a 40:1 ratio of water to sugar, that only makes 75 gallons or so of syrup.
When Adam met me at the rocketing evaporator, the first thing he asked was how my sugaring season was going, and whether I had incorporated reverse osmosis into my setup. Adam is a big believer in “RO,” because it saves time and you burn less fuel.
“Well, no,” I said, and I could see a flash of disappointment on his face. “This year I upgraded my evaporator. One thing at a time, I figure.”
“I just really think from an efficiency standpoint it makes sense to incorporate RO even into small operations,” he told me, explaining the benefits again, as he had in class.
Adam is also a believer in vacuum. He said that, on average, over the course of a sugaring season it takes four trees to produce enough sap to make a gallon of syrup. But that’s the old-fashioned way. If you put the trees “on vacuum”—the continuous suction pump drawing sap out of the trees, along a double set of tubing and lines—it should only take two trees to make a gallon of syrup.
“How many trees did you tap this year?” Adam asked.
“Fifteen,” I said. “But because of your class, I think I tapped them better, and more efficiently.” I said this to try to assure him I had learned from his class, which I had.
“And how much syrup did you make?”
“Almost two gallons?” I imagined my seven glass quart jars at home. I was very proud of that.
But I could tell Adam was doing the math in his head. For 15 trees, I should have made twice as much syrup, even the old-fashioned way. “So about eight trees per gallon, huh?” Adam shrugged. Another disappointment.
“Whether you have 100,000 taps, or make a batch in your backyard and give it to your neighbors for free, you’re part of the maple industry, what people think of maple syrup,” Adam told me. He clearly takes this seriously, how consumers think of the maple industry. It drives his class and his work, to make it as productive and high-quality as possible.
And yet despite this pan-maple solidarity, when I compared Adam’s operation to my own, it felt like Mark Twain’s famous aphorism: Uihlein and my classmates were the lightning, my homestead the lightning bug.
I did upgrade my evaporator this year. I bought the hull from a couple in Vermont who agreed to meet me at a highway exit halfway between us on that kind of early winter day when the wet snow doesn’t stick yet. Compared to the Uihlein setup, “evaporator” is a strong word to describe a cut-up old drum with cast-iron legs and rickety chimney, but it was a major step up from my stockpot.
For reasons of self-sufficiency and pandemic-related supply chains—and I’m sure pure cussedness—I have decided that to make maple syrup from my land I want to use the things already on my land. As much as possible, anyway. To reclaim what had been lost and reuse what I could.
I learned from Adam’s class that the stove portion of an evaporator, where you build the fire, is called an arch. And an arch has to be bricked, to keep in the heat and prevent the metal from rusting through. To brick my arch I used sand from a child’s forgotten sandbox and the remnants of an old chimney.
To drill holes for the taps I use a bit and brace from my grandfather’s workbench. My taps are the old style and recycled. I carry the buckets myself. I burn wood that I fell in the early autumn and split by hand in my shirt sleeves and wool overalls until Christmas, when the snow finally frustrates me. When winter sits heavily, I sharpen my ax until I can split again in the spring, but I’m no good at this and I need to do better, the ax duller every year. I’m of the age now where I don’t feel the dullness of the ax by resting my thumb on the blade; I feel the dull ax in a sore back and shoulders and little tendons in my elbows I forget exist otherwise.
I only own a few acres so I don’t need a map or complicated system to plan my taps; I recognize each maple tree individually, like neighbors you wave to while walking the dog. When tapping in the snow I see animal tracks, not just rabbits and squirrels, but also the tridents of turkeys, lazy birds who love to use the paths I clear, and deer and coyote prints weaving and overlapping. At each tree I set the bit with the brace and crank until halfway deep and then I reset the lock and crank in reverse to draw out the pale white wood. As I clean out the shavings from the hole, the sap starts to drip before I even hammer in the tap.
Every step of the way I make the most work. I know this. It is intentional.
I have mostly silver maples on my land, not sugar maples, because the land is low and swampy and only the silvers tolerate having wet feet much of the year. In late February, as I worked from tree to tree, I’d break through the ice, platters heaving and cantilevering in the air. And then as the weather warmed and I checked the buckets, I saw the decaying ice had twisted into fantastical shapes, warm water flowing into the animal prints and channels creating sensual modern art.
The whole time, I never felt like I was learning as much as relearning. Meaning, my great-grandfather surely knew how to do this—how did no one ever teach me? I awakened the old way of doing things, simply by trying and failing and trying again.
And yet, despite all that, it was Adam Wild’s online class over Zoom that ultimately taught me skills I’d never have learned otherwise. I needed the technology. This is true as well.
Another student in our maple class was Kim Narol, the garden manager at North Country School, in Lake Placid. Like me, Kim was new to sugaring. Unlike me, she wanted to tap 500 trees, boil thousands of gallons, and enlist dozens of students to help. “It was my first time doing this, any of it. It’s crazy,” she told me.
The sugar bush at North Country School is 11 acres, around the corner from the Uihlein forest. Kim only managed to get in 429 taps this year, all connected to old-fashioned galvanized buckets, though Adam came by and added 25 more trees on lines as a demonstration. Every day Kim walks the trees and checks the color of the sap and which buckets are full and some days she has hundreds of gallons to haul through student labor. Their three stock tanks each hold 350 gallons, and they boil most days they collect, so the sap doesn’t spoil and they have space for the next day’s yield. Their sugarhouse was built in the 1970s. “Funky and old and kinda classic,” Kim called it.
Kim’s evaporator isn’t much bigger than mine and requires someone to load wood almost continuously, to keep up with the steady drip of sap, using what Kim called an oops tank for when the liquid flows too fast. “The sugaring is scary,” Kim laughed. “There is so much that can go wrong!” But in reality, her process sounded more like a party, 10-hour boils and hanging out by the fire until after midnight, a ritual, the sugarhouse a natural congregation point in the spring, when the days are getting long but the mud and chill endure.
All that work for a total of 60 gallons of syrup that ends up on student pancakes all year.
Kim has experience growing vegetables in soil, but “this feels very different than farming,” she said. “This feels more like a mix of science and art.” And yet, not necessarily advanced manufacturing processes; it is analog at best. “The school wants to keep it traditional and do it the old way with buckets. The school had lines about 20 years ago and went back to buckets. We have a lot of students! Many hands make light work, and there’s no way to do it without students and teachers. I think it’s cool.”
I told Kim that I had learned a lot in our class together but I felt like my goals were at odds with it somehow; it left me uneasy, like I had let Adam down. Kim said she knew what I meant. “Lines are way more efficient,” she said, referencing the tubes crisscrossing the Uihlein forest, “but buckets are sweet and lovely and fun.” Part of her wanted to expand, Kim said, but not at the expense of the experience.
“It’s intentional work for the students, and at the end they get to eat the syrup,” she told me.
Which also sums up pretty well the reason I started tapping trees too.
To see the heart of the Uihlein sugar bush Adam drove us on an ATV equipped with tracks instead of tires, the better to navigate snowy trails. The winter pack had mostly melted, though, and the forest was awakening. A spider web of blue and black and occasionally green tubes radiated in all directions, linking tree to tree with sap collection and vacuum lines. We were standing on a carpet of beech leaves, and through the wood’s empty canopy I could see the bare head of Algonquin covered in snow. Nearby, woodpeckers knocked a tune.
We walked up the snug draw through stands of century-old sugar maples and the first spring sun was warm on our faces as we discussed the positioning of value-added products in the consumer space. Ginger, sea salt and maple sports gels. This was the hottest new product in the athletic performance market.
While out, Adam wanted to check on some of his experiments: lime and nitrogen fertilizer testing on a fenced-off ring of saplings, line-cleansing comparisons, beech and birch taps to make syrup that tastes more like balsamic vinaigrette. “I’m just trying to be as economical as I can with a tree with no economic value,” he said of the beech pests that intermingle with the sugar maples.
Salad dressing is a long way from sweet piles of pancakes, the traditional image that fuels maple sales. Many producers, even and especially the largest, lean into this framing, and in the Sweet Talk podcast whenever nostalgia is mentioned the conversation quickly pivots to marketing. “We need a way to make these family farms continue,” Adam said, and he’s not wrong.
In a fundamental way, this nostalgic family farm is central to the maple industry. For all practical purposes, sugar bushes are inherited or rediscovered, not planted, because of the 40 years of growth required to get a maple ready for tapping.
In response, some farmers are beginning to plant high-density maple, like the new apple orchards that feature a thousand spindly wisps per acre, each poor twig held up by wires and scaffolding. Adam is testing a small plot of these trees, several rows of saplings that he says are genetically sweeter, red and silver hybrids. The trees are linear, identical, symmetrically tapped, clean lines squared off, no web of tubing, no waste. Clinical and perfect.
“Is this the future of maple syrup?” I asked.
Adam hesitated. Despite all the efficiencies in the rest of his operation, I sensed he’d finally found the step that goes too far.
“In one sense, I hope not,” he said. “You know, at North Country [School], they sit around the fire, and add wood every seven minutes, but they have a community. Someone brings a ukulele. I sometimes wonder, if up here, I focus too much on production.”
I wonder too, if there is space for homesteads and small farms in our rapidly modernizing, tech-first future. And if there is, will it take scientific advancements, like surgically precise, high-density maple groves, to make them work?
I hope there is still space for small farms, and I take heart in what I have learned from maple sugarers like Kim, and what I’ve seen in my own limited experience on my land. That this efficiency-at-all-costs global food complex future is not inevitable. That, for maple syrup at least, the tension between a new way and an old way is a false choice.
That there is a third way, if one has intention and thoughtfulness, that combines advancements and learning with that old-fashioned labor that retains meaning.
Brian Castner is the author of Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike, Disappointment River, All the Ways We Kill and Die and the war memoir The Long Walk. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire and The New York Times.