Maple syrup season comes early
Maple syrup season usually starts in early February, but Ambler Farm’s programming and property manager, Kevin Meehan, has already made at least three gallons of maple syrup — and it’s only January.
A typical maple syrup season lasts five weeks — usually ending in mid-March — and is dependent upon weather.
Fluctuation of air temperature is vital to the flow of sap inside sugar maple trees and typically in the early spring, temperatures rise above freezing during the day and drop below freezing at night.
However, Meehan said, the weather has been “weird” lately.
“We got like three days of 50 degrees — we don’t want that,” he said. “We need cold nights and warm days.”
During the warm periods, when temperatures are above freezing, pressure develops in maple trees and causes sap to flow out of them through a wound or tap hole.
When temperatures are below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, suction develops and draws water into the trees through their roots, replenishing the sap inside and allowing it to flow again during the next warm period.
“On those warm days, the sap runs up to the branches to bring food to the leaf buds. At night, it comes down and says, ‘Wait a minute — it’s still winter,’” said Meehan.
“We don’t want the trees to start thinking it’s spring and start budding, because if they do that and then we get that cold in, it kills the leaf buds.”
If the buds die, it kills leaves that would form, “which means the trees won’t produce as much food,” said Meehan. “It affects the whole habitat.”
This year, 110 families have the opportunity to adopt a maple tree at Ambler Farm and make their own syrup through the farm’s Tap-a-Tree maple syrup program.
“We’ll train them and then send them off throughout the farm to hang their buckets on their adopted trees,” said Meehan.
“The only people who will extract sap from that tree is the family. It’s their tree.”
Ambler Farm will offer two training sessions on Saturday, Feb. 4 — one at 10 a.m. and another at 1 p.m. Participants need to take only one session, during which they will learn the science and history of maple syruping by being a hands-on part of the process.
After training, participants will choose a tree and hang their buckets for sap collection.
Over the course of five weeks, Meehan will send families regular updates on the running of the sap so they can come to the farm and collect it from their trees.
“If the sap’s really running, they’ll be going to their tree quite a bit to collect the sap,” said Meehan.
After extracting sap, families will bring their buckets to the farm’s outdoor “sugar shack” to turn it into syrup.
In the shack, a brick oven is used for boiling.
“As we heat it up, the sap sweetens and the sugar content gets higher and higher as we boil off the water in an evaporator,” said Meehan.
The substance is then funneled into a finishing pan, where it heats until it reaches 219 degrees — the temperature at which syrup boils.
At the end of the process, the families will go home with their very own bottle of Ambler Farm maple syrup.
Tap-a-Tree is a winter tradition, said Meehan, and a great way to get families out of the house during the winter.
“For those five weeks, we engage families and talk about what’s happening in nature and really get them involved in the process,” he said.
“We have families come by twice a week to check their buckets and we ask them to make one of those days a weekend day because that’s when we’ll be boiling and they’ll get to learn about the process.”
To accommodate people’s schedules, Meehan said, family members will be invited to come out to the farm at any time, including at night, to check their buckets.
Ambler Farm started tapping trees the first year it bought an evaporator, which was about eight years ago, said Meehan.
“That year, we made 160 bottles and we were so excited because we never made it before,” he said.
“We’ve had quite a few years in which we’ve made 1,200 to 1,500 bottles. Last year, we made 700. The year before that, it was 600.”
Although the weather has been trickier the last couple of years, Meehan said, the farm’s goal is to make 1,000 bottles.
Syrup made at Ambler Farm is sold at the Village Market and “people love it,” said Meehan. “It has quite an extraordinary taste.”
Enrollment for Ambler Farm’s Tap-a-Tree maple syrup program is limited and tends to fill up quickly. Program costs are $60 per member family and $65 per non-member family.
Those who register but are unable to attend either training session should email firstname.lastname@example.org.