March is an interval month. It gives little hints of spring while most of the snows and cold of winter cling to its edges. For those who are tied to long northern winters, March can crawl to April at an agonizingly slow pace. But an exciting March activity can quicken the approach of spring and shake lose the winter blahs.
We call that activity making maple syrup and we just finished our last sap boil Tuesday.
Our March routine goes something like…
Early in the month I haul my two 100 pound barrel stoves from storage and set them up at the front of our property overlooking the river.
Each year without exception, I somehow forget how heavy the stoves are to lift and the next morning after I’ve moved them, I climb out of bed like the hunchback of Notre Dame. This year was no exception. I suck down a few Ibuprofen and by noon I’m able to limp around like I have a rod stuck up my rear. Fortunately, the weather isn’t right for sap flow yet so I have time to recover somewhat from my sore back before I have to tap the trees.
A week or so after I’ve set up my boiling kits, I am able to hobble around the property and drill tap holes, insert the spiles and hang cleaned milk jugs. Each year, without exception, I somehow forget how slippery the snow is in the woods and fall while snow shoeing or hiking to that one tree on the side of the hill, and slip and fall and swear and complain that I should have remembered. A couple more Ibuprofen keeps me moving.
This year we started collecting sap about the 20th of March but didn’t acquire any significant quantity until the end of the month. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. I have a 35 gallon tank to hold the sap until I have enough to make it worthwhile to boil. I bury the tank in snow to keep the sap at a constant cold temperature. If sap gets too warm, like milk, it will spoil. Each year, without exception, I forget that a five gallon pail of sap weighs about 60 pounds and that hauling it from trees located at the farthest cardinal points of the compass around my lot to my sap tank at the farthest front of my lot is not that easy on a sore back. More Ibuprofen.
My two barrel stoves will boil off about 4 1/2 gallons of sap per hour so it takes me about 9 hours of splitting wood and feeding the fire to make a gallon of syrup. Each year, without exception, I forget how all that bending and twisting and chopping and splitting can affect my lower back. “Judi, are we out of Ibuprofen?”
Fortunately, my trees flow slowly enough that it takes about 3 days to collect enough sap to warrant a day spent boiling sap. Each year, without exception, I forget how hard it is for me to get out of my chair during the last boil of the season and how much I look forward to getting to the Ibuprofen bottle at the end of each boiling day.
Keeping the fire hot and the sap pan filled requires constant attention. Every 15 minutes I have to feed the fires and every 20 minutes add sap to the sap pan. I usually get a good book to read between these activity schedules but each year, without exception, I forget what I’ve read after each 15 or 20 minute break and end up reading the same paragraphs over and over. I wonder if all the Ibuprofen I took just to keep moving has affected my short term memory?
While Judi and I were stoking the fires and tending the sap pans, we wondered aloud how much our labor would be worth if we actually sold the syrup we produced. Today syrup is selling for about $50 a gallon wholesale. Including clean up, the two of us feeding the fires, adding sap and bottling the final product spend about 20 of labor hours per gallon of finished syrup which would work out to about $2.50 an hour. That labor doesn’t even consider how many hours I’ve spent collecting, cutting and splitting the fire wood the previous summer and hauling sap during the season. And by the time you deduct the cost of all my Ibuprofen I guess it would work out to about seventy five cents an hour. Now if you figure in the cost of all the maple syrup making paraphernalia I’ve purchased over the last seven years….. well let me say that each year, without exception, just thinking about it gives me a multi-Ibuprofen headache.