Everyone in the Hudson Valley knows that March and April don’t just mark the start of spring; they also kick off maple season.
Maple sugaring has a long and vibrant history in the region. Techniques developed by indigenous peoples have been used for hundreds of years to harness the Valley’s supply of maple trees for syrup that rivals anything out of Vermont or Canada. Plus, the sweet stuff adds character to goods across the region, from bourbon to fresh ice cream.
White Feather Farm is an certified naturally grown non-profit farm located on Mohican and Munsee Lenape land in Saugerties. In addition to cultivating 80 varieties of vegetables through regenerative farming methods, the team also produces an amazing Hudson Valley treat: syrup. Jake McDonough, a lifetime local, manages the entire maple sugaring process.
“All a person really needs to start collecting are buckets, taps, and something to cook down your maple syrup down in,” McDonough says.
The trees need to be at least nine inches in diameter in order to be tapped. During the frigid winters of the Hudson Valley, temperatures are too low for sap to be collected.
Sugar maples have the highest sugar content, but any maple tree can be tapped. Using a 5/16 drill bit, the team drills in an inch and a half to two inches. They then put a piece of wood against the tap, and tap it in with a hammer. Once they hang a bucket on it, the waiting begins.
“There’s different ways of doing it in terms of the collection process. It all depends on your scale of production, when you have five trees at home, 120 trees (which is what we tapped this year), or thousands of trees, the method of collection changes,” farm manager Dallas McCann explains.
High production operations connect food-grade tubes from tree to tree on a slope. That feeds into a collection tank, which is collected daily. White Feather Farm experimented with a line system for about 20 taps, and the rest were good old-fashioned bucket-to-bucket collecting.
The buckets will overfill if they aren’t collected daily. Plus, when sap-filled buckets sit out for too long in temperatures that are either too hot or too cold, the sticky stuff can spoil. The team at White Feather Farm drove the collection tank on a tractor around the property and collected sap every day. Collectors dumped each bucket’s sticky-sweet sap into a five-gallon receptacle. That five-gallon container then filled up the 55-gallon collection drum.
“Then we just drag it over to our sugar shack and pump it up into our collection tank. From there, it’s gravity-fed into our evaporator,” McDonough says.
This is where the process becomes more complex. The evaporator boils off 25 gallons of water per hour. With a lever, the team at White Feather Farm manually controls how much sap enters the first chamber of the machine. Even as it moves into the second chamber, the tree sap is quite viscous and full of H20.
Every time the sap enters a new chamber, it thickens up and takes on characteristics closer to the maple syrup everyone knows and loves. Natural sugars become more concentrated due to the amount of water boiling out of the mixture.
High heat and pressure also caramelize the sugars, producing a beautiful dark color and rich, complex flavors. A goal of the evaporation process is to up the sugar concentration from a little over two percent at the start to well over 65 percent.
White Feather Farm has six chambers on its evaporator. By the time the collection passes through the final leg of its journey, the product has become a smooth, densely sweet maple syrup ready to elevate breakfasts throughout the Hudson Valley.
“Once you see buds on the trees, that means it’s time to pull the taps for the season,” McDonough says. “A good rule of thumb, especially for sustainability, is to never collect more than you intend to use. If your mission for the season is to produce one gallon of syrup, stop collecting sap once you have that gallon.”
The farm finished collecting for the season on March 22. The evaporator turned 1,069 gallons of sap into 17 gallons of syrup. For Hudson Valleyites searching for farm-fresh syrup, White Feather Farm will sell its liquid gold at a farm stand starting in late May.