While in high school, I got a job on a dairy farm near our home in northeast Ohio. It was common for farms in that area to have large woodlots, which provided supplemental income in the form of maple syrup. On this particular farm, the goal was to make about 400 gallons of syrup each spring.
For those uneducated in the art of syrup making, it takes about 50 gallons of sap from a sugar maple tree to produce 1 gallon of pure maple syrup. By my calculations, it took about 20,000 gallons of tree sap to make those 400 gallons of syrup. By the way, that stuff you buy in the grocery store is not really maple syrup but something more along the lines of tinted sugar water.
To collect the sap, we didn’t use tractors because they rutted up the woodlot roads that meandered through the trees. Rather, we used a team of two horses to pull a wooden sled that was equipped with a galvanized tank for sap containment. Make no mistake, this was hard work — hard work for the people and hard work for the horses, as it often took the entire day and then some to collect sap during a “good run.”
Unlike hay baling, sap collecting is done in rain, sleet, snow, and hail. Even when it wasn’t raining, a person routinely got a sap bath from mishandled buckets. In those days, the official uniform of a sap collector mirrored that of a Maine lobster fisherman — rubberized from head to toe.
By late afternoon, the horse team would be dragging . . . barely putting one hoof in front of the other. I felt sorry for the brutes as I took the reins one more time and moved on to the next array of brimming sap buckets. After the last load of sap was delivered to the evaporator, I’d take the team and head them up a considerable slope toward the barn.
The two horses, which just minutes before were moving slower than the loser of a nursing home potato sack race, would see the barn at the top of the hill and amazingly be transformed into Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds coming down the home stretch. All I could do was hold on to the reins and hope the giant equines decided to stop somewhere close to the barn doors rather than in the adjoining rural subdivision. During this short stint of sulky racing madness, animal control was no longer top of mind, nor was it possible. Taking its place was preservation of life (mine, not the horses’).
Once in the barn, unbridled, and provided with adequate feedstuffs, the horses offered a sigh of relief from the front and a sigh of something else from the rear. I obliged with the same and went on to start the milking chores.
For some days and weeks, survival becomes the end game. That’s also true for just about any growing season. From the time plants start greening in the spring until the time cows are turned out on cornstalks, physical, mental, and financial fitness are hopefully as good or better at the end as they were at the beginning. It’s never easy because in between there are a lot of sap bucket baths, uncontrollable horses, and countless hours of hard work.
Some of you reading this suffered through horrific drought conditions this past year. Yes, there are those times when the sap doesn’t run at all. Others have dealt with buckets of relentless sap — sans the sucrose. Such is life in the food production woodlot. I have a friend with a hay farm in Arizona, and he has done nothing but complain about too much rain this year even though he farms on the desert. In his case, he simply prefers to control the sap flow.
In the sugar bush, the spring air temperature eventually warms, the syrup turns dark, and the sap quits running. At that point, you can only look back, be thankful for what you got, chuckle about the sap baths, feel relieved the horses are going out to pasture, and know that you survived another syrup marathon with new lessons learned.
Another growing season is in the books — hope yours was sweet. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.
This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.
Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.