Maple Sugaring Season 2019: False Start?

maple sap buckets

Against a goal of 150 gallons of syrup for the year 20-30 gallons is significant. So what’s there to be worried about?

Breakdowns Lead to Breakthroughs

Problems lead to solutions. Failures lead to successes. When you think about it, what is success without failure, or a solution without a problem? But I digress. Based on the 10-Day forecasts I was planning to collect and evaporate sometime in late February. That happened, more or less.

Maple Sugaring and Farming

It’s no coincidence that many pure maple syrup producers were, and still are, farmers. And dairy farmers in particular. Of course, “The sweet sap of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) was known and valued by Indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, including the Abenaki, Haudenosaunee and Mi’kmaq, long before the arrival of European settlers,” that according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

“Haudenosaunee tradition tells of the piercing of the bark of a maple and the use of its “sweet water” to cook venison, a happy accident that might have also established the culinary technique of maple-cured meats. Maple curing was a food preservation method practised by the Anishinaabe that allowed communities to keep food stores for winter months when food was scarce.
The Anishinaabe called the “sugaring off” period when sap was collected the “maple moon” or “sugar month.” The tradition of sugaring off became established in communities in the deciduous forests of North America and has survived to the present.”

Author: Leo H. Werner. Title: Maple Syrup Industry. Other contributors: Eli Yarhy, editor. Publisher: The Candian Encyclopedia. Publication Date: Feb 07, 2006. Last Edited: January 18, 2018. Date of Access Feb 25, 2018.

With farming, or hunting and gathering for that matter, comes interdependence on the cycles of nature. As “civilized” peoples, we tend to enjoy the cyclical natural highs, and insulate ourselves (as completely as possible) from the lows. But insulating ourselves is not entirely or even mostly possible when nature provides so directly for so many of our needs. I consider that to be a good thing, while it does bring with it some challenges to be sure.

Mother Nature and Maple Sugaring

10-Day Forecast as of 2019 Feb 12

As said earlier, “I was planning to collect and evaporate sometime in late February,” and as of the Feb 12th that looked to be late in the 3rd week of Feb or perhaps even later, as daytime highs appeared to trend toward freezing and above, with overnight lows well below freezing.

Temperature History

As you can see in the weather history, we experienced daytime highs at or above freezing starting Feb 19, with overnight lows below freezing through the morning of the 23rd; not coincidentally we tapped between Feb 20 and the 22nd inclusive. My eye was on collecting over the weekend, Feb 23 and 24, and that’s what we did, beginning collection on the 24th with the intention of evaporating that same day and beyond.

Warming Trend Reversed

All of a sudden Mother Nature put the brakes on, and from an overnight high near 50°F leading into Sunday the 24th, temperatures plummeted on a nearly straight line to 15.5°F this morning, the 25th. I called a halt to collecting yesterday after ~120 of 720 buckets had been collected. Winds were gusting to 30 mph and we were all generally miserable, with Marissa and Sam N. suffering the most as chief sap collectors. The decision to halt collecting came more easily when I again consulted the forecast.

10 Day Forecast 2019 Feb 25

We are not going to see much of the high side of freezing for the next 10 days, if we see it at all. The good news is that the sap still on the trees will freeze, and therefore not be lost; I estimate there is the equivalent of at least 20 gallons of pure maple syrup in those buckets, after evaporation of course. Other good news is that this gives me time to upgrade some Sugar House systems (new Head Tank installation and Steam Away plumbing in particular). The bad news? We will have been tapped for almost two weeks before we see sap flow again. The life of taps is 4-6 weeks, roughly, so at best a third of the season will be behind us and we will have collected just 1,000 gallons of sap in my estimation; we need to collect about 6,450 gallons to yield 150 gallons of syrup.

Problems, What Problems?

Steam Away Plumbing

The Steam Away was intended to be the big improvement for the year, and I hope it still is. This piece of equipment should dramatically improve evaporation efficiency, which is the sole rationale for increasing the number of taps this year to 750 from 500; “Intense testing was done and showed a 65-75 percent increase in Evaporation Rates.” That’s all good, if it works.

Plumbing interference issue with Steam Away integration

As I said in last Friday’s Newsletter, “the two pipes on the left hand side of the composite image are supposed to come together in a slip joint. Not going to happen. The pipe would allow sap to flow from the new Steam Away to the existing Flue Pan Float Box. See that dark rectangle at the bottom of the left hand image; that’s the open top of the Syrup Pan Float Box, and it is interfering with the plumbing layout because the designers “assumed” that the Syrup Pan Float Box was on the other side of the Evaporator. The right hand image shows the interference from another angle. …Now I will be without 30% of my evaporation capacity for at least a week of the season. Not good. My ownership? I should have planned for this sort of trouble and allowed time for resolution. As it is, if all would have gone according to plan I would have had this together “Just In Time.” I should know better, I did project management for a living for a long time.”

Primal Woods Newsletter Nr 9, John’s Friday Reflection, 2019 Feb 22

Rick from Sugar Bush Supplies arrived on-site Sunday as I was preparing to fire up the evaporator. They’ve been serving customers like me since 1934, and run a sugaring operation as well, so Rick is well versed in pretty much all things Maple. Rick came to take the measurements necessary to rework the Steam Away plumbing, and also with the materials necessary to put the Steam Away into operation with a temporary plumbing solution. While there though, we got into conversation about sap supply to the Evaporator. One thing led to another, and it became clear that Rick thought I should make some significant changes to my “Head Tank,” aka sap feed tank, and the pluming between the Head Tank and the Evaporator.

Evaporator Sap Head Tank

maple sap head tank, maple sap feed tank
Existing Maple sap Head Tank

Specifically he thought the Head Tank should be inside the Sugar House (to prevent the freezing problems almost entirely), and he thought the 3/4 inch PEX line was too small, especially with 90° elbows and T-fittings in the line further reducing flow. Basically he cautioned that with the higher flow rates necessary due to increased evaporation rates, I might actually starve the Evaporator of make-up feed. Let’s just say that that wouldn’t end well with the Arch running a 1,000°F stack temp just beneath those pans.

Leader Evaporator 120 gallon sap storage tank

Once again consulting the forecast and seeing time now available, I decided to upgrade the Head Tank and Evaporator sap supply systems. The new Head Tank will contain 120 gallons (4x current capacity) and is 24″W by 48″ L by 27½ H.
The tank is open-topped to ease cleaning.

That’s 1,000 lbs of water though, and it weighs a bit more because sap is denser than water. The bottom of the tank needs to be approximately 8 ft off the floor to provide necessary head pressure to the Steam Away Float Box, which would put the top edge of the Head Tank at 10 ft 3-1/2 in off the floor, a tight fit under the roof-line. Our all-things-construction man Sam, will lead the building of a structure to support the tank. After installation the Head Tank will be plumbed a sort distance through 1″ lines to the Steam Away Float Box, eliminating the line restrictions Rick was concerned about.

Lessons Learned in Maple Sugaring

I got off easy this time, and that’s my prayer these days, “Lord, gentle nudges please,” as opposed to those swift kicks in the ass! If all goes well, we should not lose the benefit of any of that first sap run. The Head Tank would have needed to come inside sooner or later; it will be done sooner. Rick’s advice regarding size of the Evaporator supply plumbing was heeded, and a crisis likely averted. I may have put us in the woods too early, but 20/20 hindsight doesn’t change what’s so; we will deal now with the hand that I’ve dealt. In summary, we learned a lot, we improved, and we haven’t suffered too much in the process. I’m calling that a win.

See related posts:

2019 Maple Syrup Season Planning

Planning for 2018 Maple Syrup Expansion,

All the best, I’m yours with warm regards,