I Guess I’m a Farmer

One advantage to living in this rural part of the UP of Michigan is my acquaintance with farmers. Folks that make their living off the land are a special breed, and I’m privileged to be friends with some of them.

In my professional life, I was able to control many of the variables that could affect my success. My farmer friends also have that luxury to a certain extent, but the weather, that unpredictable ally/enemy, is mostly beyond control. There are strategies available to prepare for the weather, but when the weather rolls over, about all a farmer can do is hope for the best, and roll up his sleeves in the aftermath. A special breed of folks is attracted to this profession, and a still more special breed manages to stick it out.

This maple syrup season tested my mettle. When I made my first trip to the sugar bush to look things over, I saw that one of my 4 firewood sheds had been destroyed by the snowload. The other 3 had survived because they were full of wood. The empty one just couldn’t take the strain, so down it came. Even though the maple sap was running, there was still a lot of snow in the woods. I hang the buckets on my trees in two positions, 2′ and 3′ above the ground. I alternate between these two positions as I move around the trees year-by-year to keep the trees healthy. The 2′ positions often meant the top of the bucket was below the snow line. This made hanging and gathering the buckets challenging.

Good sap weather is below freezing nights and above freezing days. From the day I tapped until I pulled my buckets about 5 weeks later, I had good sap weather every day except 2. On those two days, the daytime weather stayed below freezing, so I was able to stay inside and bottle syrup. I normally get several more days like this during the season, but this year the sap just ran and ran. So I gathered and boiled, day in and day out. I thought I had plenty of firewood, but as the days went by, the firewood evaporated from my piles.

Many of my sap days were above average production. From my 70 taps, a good day would be 25 gallons of sap. It takes me about an hour to gather, but my little evaporator can only boil about 5 gallons of sap per hour. So 25 gallons means 5 hours of boiling. There is no tubing or other labor savers in my little operation. Buckets collect the steady drip drip drip of sap, and repurposed stainless steel milk pails (5 gallon capacity each) are used to move the sap from the buckets to my collecting barrel. With all the snow I was on showshoes much of the time, but sometimes if the weather was cold enough, I could walk on the snow crust without too many mishaps.

Above average days would sometimes throw the whole system into a panic. I had several days with 50+ gallons of sap. My storage barrel is only 55 gallons, and I like to empty the barrel of the previous day’s gather, and rinse it out, before I start gathering the next day. Some days I couldn’t do this because the buckets were close to overflowing. When there was no room for more sap and the buckets were getting full, I had to roll up my sleeves and spend more hours tending the evaporator.

Then there was the ice. On very cold nights, if sap is left in the buckets overnight, I can get several inches of ice on top of the buckets. The deal I’ve made with the trees (yes I talk to my trees) is if you give it to me, I’ll boil it. Many syrup producers throw out their ice believing that the ice contains less sugar, and therefor is a bonus, since the liquid sap that is left is sweeter and requires less boiling. Towards the end of the season, the barrel was mostly full, the trees were really producing, and I had to make a hard choice. The top 25% of the barrel contained ice, and I really needed that space, so I grabbed my hand sieve and strained the ice as best as I could, tossed it on the ground, and continued through the storage barrel until there was nothing but clear sap left. Sorry trees.

For 5 weeks this continued, day in and day out. I did my best to keep up, but was steadily losing ground. My philosophy of not storing sap more than 24 hours went out the window. It was coming so fast I didn’t have the luxury of completely emptying the barrel every day. Sometimes 3 days went by before I found the bottom of the barrel, and then wham! One more gather and the thing was full again. The syrup was coming out of the woods in 1 gallon glass jars and being stored in the refrigerator until I could get it bottled. I was running on the ragged edge of a knife blade, and still the run continued.

When the sap started turning yellow after a few warm nights, I pulled my taps and called it a season. After the last quart jar was filled and sealed, I counted up the year’s take. Seventeen gallons! My previous high was 13 gallons, but this record will surely stand unless I upgrade my equipment.

Since the season ended in mid April, I’ve sat down and attempted to write about it several times. My butt was so thoroughly kicked by the 2019 maple syrup season, that I couldn’t seem to collect my thoughts enough to put a coherent story together. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever write again. My respect for my farmer friends went up several notches this year. My season only lasts for 5 weeks, but these guys go year round. It their luck holds out, they can make some money. If not, they just roll up their sleeves and put in the extra effort to salvage what is salvageable. My hat is off to them.

3 Responses to “I Guess I’m a Farmer”

  1. Stella Hansen says:

    You write so well… don’t you dare quit. We missed you this year, we already went up to the Pines early because we leave Monday for Alaska to visit Erin.

    Hope you both are well and loving every day. I’ll catch up when we get back.

    Much Love, Stella

  2. Ted Soldan says:

    Please give our best to Erin! We miss you guys. I still think about the time we sat on the dock with the dogs and watched the bald eagle.

  3. Peter Lehnert says:

    i have heard it said many times that it is a lot easier to remove the child from the farm than it is to remove the farm from the child. the work ethic remains for a lifetime. your writings turn out better than many published authors. stop by or at least call us to meet whenever you have a trip past our way. thanks for writing.

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