Sap Happenings

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We’ve been doing a lot of boiling around here… the sap-to-syrup process isn’t a hard one, but it sure is time consuming.
IMG_0736It has taken us about 6-7 hours of boil time for 3 gallons of syrup, and today we’re doing a marathon boil of nearly 5 gallons. IMG_0738We stored yesterday’s gatherings in an old carboy from our winemaking days. This one is a 5-gallon carboy, and we have half of it on the stove right now…

Ours is just a backyard operation, but I could see how people can go nuts with this! Many farms around us collect sap with tubing which terminates in a larger holding tank. This is often near the sugarhouse, which is exclusively used for boiling down sap. In fact, next weekend here in New Hampshire is Maple Sugar Weekend where dozens of area sugar houses are open to the public!

Spring is certainly on the way, but first, we muddle through the messy Mud Season. Late Winter sun melts mounds of snow resulting in lots and lots of mud. It’ll stay this way until things start drying out later in April.

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That can’t come soon enough!

Time to Tap

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Back after a long hiatus and a busy winter … and… we’re trying our hands at maple syrup, folks.

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It’s a New England institution, gathering sap, and one we’ve been on the periphery of each year. We’ve been to maple sap boils, sugar houses, and sent nearly every family member a Christmas bottle of New Hampshire-made syrup. With two huge (namesake) trees on our property, it was time for us to give it a go.

Eschewing the modern plastic sap containers, I posted an ad on a local farm & garden Facebook group in search of the classic, old galvanized ones. In a bit of a rush (40 degrees starts TOMORROW!), I got in touch with the farmstead across the street, and of course they had sap buckets hanging around, complete with tops and spiles (combo tap/bucket holders.) IMG_0673

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Buckets were cleaned and scrubbed with bleach water and thoroughly rinsed.IMG_0660

Then, we started the hunt for maples around the property. Any sugar-type maple would do, but popular varieties are Sugar, Red, Silver, Black, and Rock. Trees needed to be at least 31″ around before they can safely be tapped without damaging the tree. This was a bit larger than we anticipated, and we discovered lots of junior sugar trees … just a few more years needed!

Trees 79+ inches around can take 3 taps, which is the max. At 150+ inches around (12+ feet!) this tree is our largest… shortly after the photo, we hung a third bucket on this one.

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We pre-drilled a 2″ downward-facing hole and gently pounded in the spile with a mallet. The hook on the bottom holds the bucket, and the groove on the top funnels sap into the bucket. Buckets should hang on the South-facing side of the tree, which is the warmest. Sap flows best when days are 40-50 degrees and nights dip down in the 30s. These temperature changes make sap flow up and down the tree (and out of our taps!)

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IMG_0670Each tap can produce 10-20+ gallons, and 40 gallons are needed to make 1 gallon of syrup. This sheer quantity, along with the labor-intensive and hands-on process involved in making real syrup dictates much higher prices for genuine maple syrup vs. the general grocery-story maple-flavored (corn) “syrup”…

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Today was truly the easiest day of the process, I’m imagining. Now, we wait, haul sap, store it and boil it down. Hopefully things won’t go wrong along the way, and even if we end up with enough to put on a few pancakes, it’ll be success. We have much to learn!

Lots of helpful reading here if you’re interested in trying this at home!

Fair Day!

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I guess I didn’t realize that things would still be really dark at 5am, when we were up to get Finn, throw hay to the others, and round up our stuff. As usual, Finn was a trooper – stepping right up into a strange trailer, in the dark, on the first attempt. With him munching contentedly on his hay bag, we double checked that we had everything we needed and off we went. The drive to Contoocook, NH was about 1 hour 15 minutes, and we made good time.

Finding parking at the fair was pretty simple, so we pulled alongside the other horse trailers, got Finn out and worked on harnessing him up– his class was first.

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Meanwhile, I signed us up (we had to provide proof of insurance and a Coggins form upon registration), and we drew our number. Pam (jokingly) instructed to draw nothing lower than 5, so Jed could watch some of the other competitors go through before he had to.

Jed drew 1 first. GULP. Then, he redrew… 2.

Part of the great thing about the club, is that they knew this was our first show and really helped us feel comfortable and at ease the whole time. We got to hook Finn up to the stoneboat before anyone else went to give us a few trial runs around the course.

The stoneboat was heavy — much heavier than what he was used to pulling — and Jed had to stand/balance himself on the boat while driving Finn through the course.

IMG_3064  Finn wasn’t sure about the stoneboat at first — he did a few nervous steps forward, and Jed had to reassure him that he was okay. After a few quick runs around some of the obstacles, the show was on.

He had to start between a set of cones, and nerves got the best of them. The first left ball was knocked off. Oops. Then, they had to veer through a tight weave of 4 cones, and amazingly, Jed & Finn got through clear. Then, they made a sharp turn and went through another set of two, then a set of four. Another ball came down. Ugh. I was certainly holding my breath as they aimed for the final set of two…

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All clear. Two balls down total and not in bad time either (which is used as a tiebreaker between two similar scores.)

We waited until the other 15 participants completed. Some knocked 2 balls down, some 1… a few 3 or more.  At that point, we pretty much chalked up the show to an awesome experience — it was victory enough to get him trailered here, harnessed up and through the course — especially hanging around other strange horses and people in a crazy fair environment while keeping his cool.

So, we were excited but not expecting much when ribbon time came. First they called the Juniors (teenagers and younger who showed in the class), then the adults. First, second, third, fourth … all other names. Fifth… another name we didn’t recognize. Then – in 6th…. Jed! WOO HOOO!!!! We were elated! Sixth might as well have been first in our book.

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The rest of the day went great… we hung out and watched other members – Jed even got to practice driving a team through the course after the show was over — something that was much different than working with a single horse.

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The only slight hiccup of the day is when one of these air people from the Verizon vendor inflated above Finn’s trailer and starting flailing around in the air… His eyes got as big as saucers,and he started pulling back on the trailer…

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Someone ran to the Verizon vendor and quickly asked them to deflate it — around a bunch of spooky horses, that could have been a nightmare!

Other than that, the day went super smooth. We all chalked it up as a complete success, and Pam said we definitely graduated to working Finn in the forecart. Given his performance, she was sure he had done things like this before. She also suggested we could work Finn with her gelding, Windy, who is about the same size. With some time and practice, they could be teamed together for some of the competitions!

Added bonus — for 6th place, Jed won $50  – for SIXTH place! Could you imagine what 1st paid out? We were starting to understand why people could get a bit competitive! Of course, we donated that $50 back to Pam for gas, happy just to bring home the ribbon.

It’s hanging on little Finn’s stall now – and we think he’s super proud of it (or at least, we are.) Who knows, maybe soon enough we’ll be able to hang a few more up there – maybe something yellow, red, or blue?

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