From cow milking to tree milking | The heart of the farm is the family

Hello from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I am the wife of a third generation dairy farmer. Other labels for me might include, but are not limited to: stay-at-home mom, home educator, quilter, and gardener. This column is where I will occasionally share stories of raising a family on a dairy farm and other chronicles of our farming family.

On our farm, late winter and early spring is generally a slower season with little field work. But, rather than relaxing, my family likes to spice up life by leaving the hands-on cow milking and “milking” a few hundred trees instead.

Let me back down. About 10 years ago we purchased property in Northern Pennsylvania. There was a house shell there, so we had it converted into a hunting cabin. Late one winter it was finally over so we took some family members there to enjoy the weekend with us. One of my brothers looked up at the trees and noticed we had maple trees, and lots of them. Next thing you know, there were holes drilled in several trees with plastic straws and bags hanging from them.

We boiled about a quarter cup of fine maple syrup this weekend, but it was enough to keep my dad’s wheels turning.

Christmas week 2016, my father and my brother collected boards, saws and drills. In January, there was a beautiful sugar shack on the property. In February it was fitted with a wood evaporator, the trees were tapped, buckets hung and we milked those maples.

Our homeschooled kids had a lot of field trips that first year. I believe the longest was 10 days in a row. They didn’t mind. Emptying sap buckets, keeping an eye on sap trays for Grandpa and Dad (who both had to get home from work), and eating pancakes smothered in fresh maple syrup are way more fun than writing essays and work on math problems.

The adults also learned. We lost half a gallon of syrup to a broken pot that first year. That’s a big waste when you’re only doing a few gallons. You’d think that with all the canning we do in the summer we’d have heated the jars properly, but apparently that eluded us. (Note: hot jars are a necessity.)

The maple syrup once ended up on the ceiling.

We use a filter press, which forces hot syrup mixed with diatomaceous earth through a series of steel plates. The plates catch diatomaceous earth and any dirt and sediment in the syrup. From the other end comes pure, clear maple syrup. We didn’t know that the plates had to be tightened after heating. And so, with many interested and helping hands dangerously close, near-boiling syrup was splashed everywhere, including up to the ceiling. Fortunately, there were no serious burns. From then on, an adjustable wrench was kept nearby.

The adventures of learning to make syrup continued. A year before straining the finished syrup that was on the stove in the kitchen, we poured a large bowl of diatomaceous earth into the cauldron of hot syrup, and it overflowed. We shouted and searched for bowls in an effort to save as much syrup as possible. Fortunately, we were able to laugh after overcoming the shock. We knew how funny we looked!

The cupboards were taken apart and the stove taken apart to clean up spilled syrup, but the distinct smell of burnt syrup returned every time we used the oven for several weeks after. Now we slowly pour the diatomaceous earth into the hot syrup.

My mom and I like to make maple sugar with syrup. We had some successes, but certainly more failures. Recently my husband and dad were at a sugar supply store and were able to talk to the owner. They mentioned our riddle. Lo and behold, they came home with an answer. We have learned that the sugars change in the syrup during the tapping season. It’s the first syrup of the season that contains the right sugars to make granulated maple sugar. We plan to test this theory as soon as possible.

What was the big lesson of last year? Do not clean your sap lines with peroxide containing a preservative.

All of our sap lines (we still use buckets, but have put most tree taps on tubes now) ended up on the ground. Apparently the peroxide didn’t turn to water over time as advertised, and instead stayed as peroxide, eating away at the plastic line connectors. It was very frustrating to find all these fallen lines on the forest floor. Well, for next season, we’ll find another way to clean the tube, or we’ll double-check that we have the correct peroxide.

At the end of February this year, we all got together at the cabin, starting another year of tree milking, I mean candy. It’s easy to forget the frustrations of the year before, when you breathe in the first boil and see those beautiful, freshly sealed jars lined up on the counter.

French toast for breakfast? Yes please!

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