Posted on 01/06/2011
WILTON — With winter’s icy grip taking hold, it’s hard to imagine an outdoor winter activity that doesn’t involve steep mountains and deep powder.
Ambler Farm, however, has a family program that is not dependent on snowfall — or snow machines — lines for the ski lift — or a long car ride to the slopes, for that matter.
For the fourth year, Kevin Meehan, program manager at Ambler Farm, will be guiding up to 95 families through the process of making maple syrup, beginning with tapping the appropriate trees at the farm at 257 Hurlbutt Street.
“The first year I was shocked we produced syrup,” Meehan said Wednesday. “We were learning as the 60 families were learning. The best interactions are when the kids and adults are asking questions.”
Meehan was also pleasantly surprised that the number of families jumped to 75 in the second year, and to 95 in 2010, creating a waiting list for the limited number of maple trees that are viable for tapping.
Following the guidelines of the Connecticut Maple Syrup Producers — and even exceeding them — Meehan will help set up a family with their tree for the five-week tapping season.
“For every tree 12 inches or larger in diameter, there can be one bucket,” Meehan said. “For two buckets, I want a tree to be 24 inches. The Connecticut Maple Syrup Producers allow a 19-inch tree to have a second tap, but I don’t want to strain a tree. And I don’t want to take too large a proportion of the tree’s food.”
Meehan said “the first goal at the farm is preservation,” so he will not hesitate to take a maple tree out of tapping rotation if it has “leafed out” too late the previous autumn, shows some signs of damage or disease with dead limbs, or has reached the majesty of three feet in diameter — six of these 100-year-old-plus trees adorn the property, and are never tapped.
This far south — Vermont is still the top syrup-producing state in the country — the quirks of weather can have a big impact on how the sap runs, and thus how much syrup is produced.
According to the CMSP, it takes roughly 30 to 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
And the reason the season is only five weeks is that bacteria eventually clog the tap holes into the tree’s vascular tissue.
“The first year we made 370 bottles of syrup, and the second year we made 515 bottles,” Meehan said. “Last year we had less because it was too warm. For the sap to run best we need warm days and cold nights. Last year it got warm too soon and the sap was not running; it stayed up in the trees. We should have had 1,000 bottles last year.”
Meehan reminded potential farmers — yes, this is a form of winter farming — that “we’re making an organic product because pure maple syrup has no additives.”
“The fun thing about this program is having all this activity here in the winter,” Meehan said. “The families are here at the same time, and people understand why real maple syrup costs so much. It takes so much work. We ask families to come out two or three times a week to empty their bucket at the sugar shack.”
Meehan said registration opened this week, and signups the first two weeks are reserved for members of Ambler Farm. Anyone interested can visit www.amblerfarm.org for more information. Registered participants will begin tapping their trees by mid-February.
After the sap is collected the old-fashioned way, in buckets — no modern tubing here — the sugar shack begins to heat up as the evaporator reduces the sap to reach the required 66 percent sugar content.
Meehan noted that most people cannot taste the sugar in maple sap right out of the tree because of the high water content.
“No matter how bad the maple syrup season might be because of weather, we still have 95 families out here several times a week and the education continues,” Meehan said. “The money we get from this program goes into the farm. And (during the five-week season) we’re always out here boiling on weekends. We just keep putting wood on the boiler fire and talking. We’re happy to talk and teach.”