By Kristie Snyder,
Every year in late winter, when the weather turns from frigid to what some call "mud season," Lou Ward gets ready for action. That not-quite-spring weather — when the days warm slightly, melting snow and turning driveways into mud traps, and the nights dip down into temps that refreeze the slush — is hated by most but beloved by "sugarers." For those who make maple syrup, that's the time to start "tapping."
Maple syrup begins with the watery sap of the sugar maple, Acer saccharum, a slow-growing, common Northeastern tree that can reach nearly a hundred feet in height. The trees prepare to break their winter dormancy, and sap begins to flow, when temperatures rise above freezing during the day but dip back below 32 degrees at night (here, that's usually late February and March).
Ward started sugaring as a child, with some neighborhood kids, and has been making and selling syrup commercially since 1990. He has sold to GreenStar for over 20 years, for the last ten of which his products have been certified organic. He makes one to two thousand gallons of syrup a year on his farm in Smithville Flats (northeast of Whitney Point), and sells a good portion of that at GreenStar, his only large retail outlet. This year, he started tapping his trees in mid-February. When asked how he thought this season would go, he laughed. "It all depends on what happens over the next four to six weeks," he said. "You have to love this to do it — and you have to be very optimistic!"
Sugarers start tapping, or collecting sap from the trees, when the days warm and the nights freeze, but a very cold snap can suspend the season, and a warm stretch of nights over 32 degrees can end it. The same record-breaking March temps that induced fruit trees to an early bloom last year also cut the maple season in half.
Maple syrup and honey are the only local sweeteners that can be produced in our area, and, unlike honey, maple syrup can be produced only in northeastern North America. Its history in our region precedes European settlement. Native Americans harvested and concentrated maple sap to make a granular sugar, and European settlers eagerly carried on the tradition. Concentrating sap to the requisite sugar content for syrup calls for seemingly endless boiling, as it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Most modern producers, like Ward, use reverse osmosis technology to concentrate the sap, saving about 75 percent of boiling time and, hence, fuel.
GreenStar sells Ward's certified-organic Grade A and Grade B syrups and granular maple sugar in the bulk department. The syrup is graded according to color. US Grade A Light Amber is the lightest in color, with the most delicate flavor. Grade A Medium Amber is slightly darker, and it's what's to be found in the bulk container labeled "Ward's Grade A Maple Syrup." US Grade B is darker, and sometimes referred to as "cooking syrup." The finished color of the product has nothing to do with how long it's been boiled, as is sometimes thought — all syrup is boiled to about 66 percent sugar content. The varying grades result from the time in the season when the sap was collected. As with light or dark beers, which grade you like best is a matter of personal preference. (And if you're wondering about products found in conventional grocery stores, labeled "pancake syrup" or "breakfast syrup" — they're mostly corn syrup. The difference between these and pure maple syrup is approximately like that between bleached white flour and what Farmer Ground Flour produces, or out-of-season tomatoes and one picked warm from the vine.)
If you'd like a closer look at the process of turning sap into syrup, the New York State Maple Producers Association celebrates Maple Weekend over two weekends every March, this year March 16-17 and 23-24. More than a hundred maple producers across the state open their sugar houses to the public for them to see how maple syrup and other maple products are made. (For more information on events and locations, visit nysmaple.com/mapleweekend/.) The Cayuga Nature Center's annual Maple Festival celebrates Maple Weekend with a pancake breakfast, live music, kids' activities, and demonstrations of maple sugaring as done by Native peoples, Colonial-era settlers, and modern sugarers. This year's celebration takes place on Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24. (Visit cayuganaturecenter.org/index.php/program/maplefest for tickets and more information.) If you see how it's done, perhaps you'll get inspired to tap your own trees and try a little "backyard sugarin'," but if not, the vats of Ward's syrup in GreenStar's bulk department will be stocked just for you.