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!

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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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fair showin’ folk

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Well, guys – sorry for the extra-long gap in posting but it has been a whirlwind summer — hosting guests every month– my Parents in June, Melissa & Mara in July, Jed’s mom in August, and my sister (yay … in 1 week!!!), as well as getting our horses home in June and adjusting to the very different lifestyle of having them here, and working on some remaining house projects  … well…. we’ve been a bit pre-occupied.

To get back in the groove, I thought I’d post a bit about one of our most recent fun experiences — a classic New Hampshire tradition we’ve been able to partake in — showing at the Fair!

It started with Finn. We knew he had a background in driving — teams, “four in hand” (which means a team of 4 horses), and single. Worried to start diving into driving him without experience, we joined the Granite State Draft Club last year to start connecting with folks in our area who had experience not only driving, but using draft horses & ponies in everyday farm work (read: pulling logs, implements, haying, and sleighing.)

While Winter brings sleigh rallies and Spring ploughing competitions, Summer is all about the fairs. Teams compete nearly every weekend at regional fairs, picking up ribbons and much sought-after prize money.

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I’m getting off track … rewind back to July, when our farrier found a condition in Finn’s hooves called White Line Disease, which can be devastating if left untreated. Our farrier caught it early, yet still had to pull his shoes and debride (or shave off) some of his hoof wall, which looks very dramatic and scary.

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With his shoes off, he certainly wasn’t sound for riding and was incredibly tender on any ground but grass. He was also prone to sole abscesses since he had no protection from the shoes, which held his sole off the ground a bit. Because of this, we spent an extra 30-45 minutes daily, rigorously cleaning, powdering and duct-taping pads to his front feet to help relieve pain and avoid stone bruises or abscesses. If it rained, he stayed in. After a daytime of pasture, he was cleaned, re-powdered, and put in a bed of extra-deep shavings.

Finn camped out on pasture for a month with no exercise or riding, as he was too sore to be backed. Wondering what we could do to get him moving again, waiting for his hooves to literally ‘grow out’, we decided to start ground driving him.

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We posted a video of this online, and Pam, a member of our Draft Club commented back that it looked like a good start and offered some pointers. Within a few days, she was over to our house, helping us in person (below, fitting him to a forecart we found and bought on Craiglist.)

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After mastering walking around in circles with Finn, Jed wondered what else there was to do…

The next day, Pam sent me a message on Facebook. The Hopkinton Fair was in 2 weeks, and there was a class where Finn could pull a log. Jed could enter, and she would trailer us there and teach us everything we needed to know. We thought about it for a night. We messaged back the next morning…

We were in.

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Jed spent two weeks practicing almost daily with an old 300-lb oak floor joist we found under the barn. He worked  around cones, through cone ‘tunnels’ and around cone ‘weave poles’ — all obstacles he’d encounter in the show.

A few days before the show, we got the memo that Finn wouldn’t actually be pulling a log. Instead, it’d be a stone boat (which he had never even SEEN, let alone pulled) and compete alongside full-sized draft horses, like Belgians and Percherons (capable of much more pulling power.) GULP.

In our minds, we resolved that just loading Finn in the trailer, getting there and having the fair experience, as well as getting home safely, would be a win for us. Trailering horses to new places (and away from their buddies) can be very stressful, so we certainly had a bit a sleepless night beforehand, wondering if things would go smoothly.

We packed our hay, water, grooming supplies and harness, as well as a sack lunch and chairs Friday night. We went to bed, readying ourselves for the 4:15am alarm Saturday morning…

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<the story continues tomorrow … stay tuned!>