MSPAC, in partnership with the CT Park and Forest Association and the CT Department of Environmental Protection, received a grant from USDA and CT Dept. of Agriculture to assess the potential to substantially increase the production/dollar value of CT maple products with a three pronged approach. (1) Increase the maple trees tapped. Connecticut currently taps less than 1% of the maple trees in the state that are old enough to be tapped. Not only is the goal to increase trees tapped but also to promote environmentally sustainable forest management by CT land owners through increased use of the lands for maple syrup production. (2) Enhance current equipment to achieve significantly increased productivity in current operations. New environmentally friendly technologies (vs. 10 years ago) have quadrupled syrup yield per tap and output per energy unit while significantly lowering operating costs with virtually no increase in carbon emissions. (3) Develop a marketing model that includes CT maple sales in high traffic retail outlets in addition to current specialty stores, farmers’ markets and farm stands.
The grant was awarded in 2010 and runs through 2013. Two pilot programs are underway. At the end of the grant results will be published.
Maple syrup and maple sugar (dehydrated maple syrup) were the New World's first natural sweeteners. Long before European settlers arrived with the European honeybee to make honey, American Indians dwelling in the Northeast were setting up sugaring camps among the plentiful sugar maple trees each spring. These camps produced an indigenous nutrient-rich sweetener high in minerals.
Indian folk tales present several different versions of how it all began. One legend tells the story of an Iroquois chief who threw his tomahawk into a maple tree one early March eve. When he retrieved it the following morning to go hunting, he noticed sap oozing from the cut in the tree. He collected some in a container and his wife added some of the syrup to the meat she was cooking for dinner. As the sap boiled down, a wonderful sweet maple flavor remained.
The Indian process of sugar making, crude by modern-day standards, employed hollowed out logs, heated rocks for evaporating the sap, and handmade birch bark containers for collecting the sap and storing the maple sugar. Most of the tribes boiled and crystallized the sap they collected into a granulated maple sugar—bypassing the syrup stage as syrup was harder to store—ending up with a more transportable sweetener.
Oliver L. Scranton, Maple Grove Farm, North Guilford (c. 1960).
New England winters can be interminable. By the time February rolls around, the skies are gray and the snow is brown. March shows signs of warmer weather as thin sheets of ice stretch across the frozen mud. I understand why some people don’t like this time of year. But growing up, the weeks between Presidents’ Day and St. Patrick’s Day were a sweet, golden amber dream known as maple syrup season.
By age seven, I was an integral part of the sugaring operations at Maple Grove Farm in North Guilford, Connecticut. Maple sugaring was a family affair, and each one of us had a role to play. I was the tour guide, and I took my job very seriously. I would show visitors the sap buckets and collection tanks, let them taste the clear, sugar-water-flavored sap and explain the entire sugaring off process. Everything I knew I had learned from my grandfather, whom I adored. He taught me that it was the Native Americans who shared the secrets of maple syrup production with our ancestors, even though there were plenty of sugar maples in Europe. He taught me that the sap runs when cold nights alternate with warm days – and that the sap stops running when the leaves start developing. Finally, he taught me the show stopping statistic that was guaranteed to get a low whistle: it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup.
While I loved being a tour guide, the best time of day was after the visitors left. My cousins, nine and eleven, and I would go with my grandfather to collect the sap. The two boys would dump buckets of sap into the collection tank on the trailer. I sat with my grandfather, occasionally steering the big green John Deere tractor through the fields. As the sun set, we would finish collecting the sap and head back to the sugar house. Sometimes we’d have pancakes for dinner, with a little bit of hot maple syrup drawn right from the evaporator. Other times we’d have chili or stew – which meant that dessert would be a maple syrup taffy made by pouring maple syrup onto fresh snow and letting it chill enough to become a sweet, flexible treat.
My grandfather died in 1984, a few months shy of my tenth birthday. As good Yankees, we didn’t talk about everything we had lost. Instead, we tapped trees, hung buckets, strung up tubing and stacked the wood that would fuel the evaporator. These simple acts gave us a sense of purpose and brought us together at a time when the strain of caring for my grandmother, who had severe Alzheimer’s, threatened to tear the family apart completely. In that small sugar house, over stacks of pancakes smothered in hot syrup, we shared our stories – breaking with one tradition while upholding another.
Maple syrup may not yet be classified as a health food, but it’s getting close! Research results, mostly coming out of Canada and based in large part on work done at the University of Rhode Island, are showing that maple syrup delivers nutritional benefits superior to other common sweeteners and that it compares very favorably to some common “healthy” foods on a nutritional value basis. Here are two comparisons that support these points.
There is more. Antioxidants are best known for their health effects in disease prevention, including neurological diseases, heart diseases and some forms of cancer. Maple syrup compares favorably in this context versus some of the healthiest foods.
To me, the most significant fact in the above comparisons lies with corn syrup. In various forms it is in many of the foods we consume from potato chips to ketchup to beef (beef cattle are fattened in feedlots on a diet of corn). And, of course, it is the only sweetener in table syrups like Aunt Jemima. Evidence is growing that corn syrup is not only basically empty calories, but it may be the primary cause of the current obesity epidemic. I am not in favor of banning corn syrup from the American diet or maple syrup replacing it in potato chips or, for that matter, gasoline where a corn derivative takes the name of ethanol, but I do want a bigger share of the sweeteners that are poured on pan cakes and waffles!!!! Maple syrup has fewer calories per serving and provides a lot more nutritional value than corn syrup.
MSPAC Member Elliott Davis recently got a little maple syrup publicity! His farm in Washington was profiled by Mommy Poppins! The Davis family has added maple syruping to their farming adventures -- along with a flock of 25 chickens, herd of Icelandic sheep and 2 beehives. To read more about this small family farm, see the full piece at Mommy Poppins.
At sugarhouses across Connecticut, local school children learn about the traditions of maple sugaring in New England. The history of maple sugaring is rooted in the land and was practiced by the Native American Tribes who lived here before us.