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Why a real Christmas tree

I got into a discussion the other day with someone who admitted that they use an artifical tree for Christmas. I must admit that they are the majority of households in the USA at present, but not the majority in the northeast where Christmas trees are still reasonably priced. There are several good reasons why some folks,for health or other reasons, can not have real trees in their home.

The story is not unusual except that this person was defending the artificial tree as a better answer for the planet. I had to differ here. We plant twice as many trees as we harvest and they all consume carbon dioxide and give off oxygen thus combating global warming. A natural tree has natural fragrances which naturally enhance your home’s smell rather than artificial scents that may or may not be healthful. Christmas trees are a crop which supports local agriculture and preserves open spaces in the countryside.  Christmas trees are biodegradable and do not end up in landfills like artificial trees.

Another misconception is that the real tree is a fire hazard. A watered tree does not spontaneously burn or even support a fire any more than an artificial tree does. If you have ever started a campfire you will remember that green or live twigs do not burn well enough to start that fire. Remember also, plastic trees are made from petroleum which burns quite nicely! Additionally, the fumes from burning plastics can contain dioxins and other gases that are poisonous beyond the danger from heat and flames.

To reduce the “mess” from real trees consider these tips. Have your tree wrapped at the tree lot so that it is easy to get into the house. Leave the tree wrapped until it is standing in the stand and then cut off the netting with a scissors or knife. Use a tree bag for removal. Open up the tree bag before you put up the tree. Drop the open bag open end up on the floor directly under the tree. Put the tree up over it and then when you are ready to take the tree out of the house simply pull the bag up over the tree and remove the tree bag and all in one piece. All the stray needles end up in the bag to reduce any cleanup.

Go ahead give a real tree a try.
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A Little Christmas Tree History

I printed this several years ago but I get questions about why we have Christmas trees every year so I thought I would bring back this oldie but goodie.

The use of evergreens as a symbol and celebration of life during Winter Solstice celebrations started in ancient Roman and Egyptian times. This practice evolved over the centuries to be incorporated in the celebration of Christmas in the Germanic areas of Europe.
The first recorded display of a decorated Christmas Tree was in 1510, in Riga, Latvia. Christmas Trees were decorated with fruit, cookies and candy that would later be shared among family members as gifts after the Holiday Season was over.

By the 1700’s, the tradition of celebrating the holidays with a Christmas Tree was widely used throughout Europe. Decorations included lace, ribbon, tin, food items and lit candles. Hessian mercenaries brought the tradition to the United States during the Revolutionary War.
In 1804, U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn, in Chicago, used evergreen trees in their barracks for Christmas. The popularity of the Christmas Tree then proliferated. In 1856, Franklin Pierce, our 14th President, brought the Christmas Tree tradition to the White House.

Today the White House Christmas tree is a grand event in the Washington holiday season.  We sell a number of trees to houses with more than one tree in the house!  This northern European tradition stays as U. S. tradition in spite of massive immigration from Latin America and Asia as well as Africa.

Strangely, the biggest threat to the Christmas tree market does not come from people who don’t want Christmas trees but from the use of artificial trees.  Less than half of U.S. households use real Christmas trees.  Common complaints include falling needles, expense, and allergies.  While I can’t quarrel with these issues it does seem that if tradition and custom is the reason you have a tree than an artificial tree does not smell or act like the real thing.

For those of you on the fence we have tried to  address the above problems.  We give tree bags to each customer and bale each tree so they are easy to get in the house and out of the house without a mess.  We have a number of kinds of evergreens so that those who are allergic to spruces may find firs acceptable.  We also sell by the foot so that if you buy a six foot tree it is more reasonable than that eight foot tree next to it.   We do u-cut trees to make them more reasonable as well  We supply string so you can tie the tree on your car.

Give a real tree a try and tie into a century old traditon.

Is it really Organic

Our maple products are now certified organic by certifying organization here in NY (nofany).  While we did not really change anything in our production process to get to that point we feel that the seal assures the public that our products are top quality beyond our say so.

I do, however,  have a “beef” with the regulations.  Apparently, for USDA certification as organic you only need to have 95% organic ingredients.  The remaining 5% of ingredients must come from an approved “national list” of ingredients which is as long as your arm.  In looking over the list I do not see any blatantly harmful products.  For some products I think these ingredients are a fact of life just to produce the product.  I do think, however, that the public feels that organic  means no nonorganic ingredients are used which is just not the case.  I would propose that foods need to  have complete lists of ingredients as people with food allergies etc. could be hurt by ingredients not listed.

In maple, the organic issues are relatively simple.  Generally, maple syrup is boiled with some type of defoamer used in the evaporator.  We use organic butter in our operation but there are a range of oils in use including synthetic oils.  The use of synthetics generally disqualifies the syrup from organic certification.  The other issue can be cleaners used in equipment.  We do use mild acids as cleaners but we use only high pressure water as cleaner in maple sap collection tubing.

Maple syrup is one of the most naturally organic of all foods.  I do not fault producers who are not organic as I do not think their methods are generally harmful.  I do think that all foods should be labeled so the public knows exactly what is in the food they are buying.

The organic seal that we use appears below:

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How we split wood.

We still use firewood in our evaporator.  Using wood is beginning to seem a bit pioneer like but we stick with it for two reasons.  One, it reduces our out of pocket fuel costs both to make syrup and to heat our home and hot water to just a hundred to two hundred dollars a year for gas and saw chains etc.  Combine that with our solar power which provides all the electricity we use over the year and the total fuel cost to make maple syrup is practically zero for us.

Using wood for fuel  also forces us to get in the woods and thin out the woods.  This removes dead and dying trees and also makes room for younger to trees to develop more leaf area by spreading out on top.  Trees with big leaf areas rather than “toothbrushes” on top produce sweeter sap.

Maple evaporators use firewood pieces that are very long (about 30 inches).  Normal wood splitters are often only good for shorter logs.  Our splitter uses a conical screw that rotates.  The screw spins and actually burrows into the log and splits it as the log is drawn up the screw.  While the moving screw must be kept clear of loose clothing etc.  this splitter can split any length wood and is ready to split the next piece as soon as you remove the split piece.  Normal hydraulic splitters need to be reset after each split.  I don’t recommend this splitter for everyone but it is an interesting alternative.

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How do we do firewood cutting

Firewood is a large undertaking on our farm.  Not only do we boil sap with wood but we heat our house(s) and hot water with wood in the winter.  “Sugarwood” as we call it is about 6 to 7 full cords (a pile that is 4 x 4 x8 feet ) while our furnace uses about 15 to 17 face cords for heating.  When we cut we use the whole tree with the top part cut into 30 inch lengths for the maple evaporator and the bottom trunk cut into 12 to 16 inch chunks for the wood furnace which heats the house and makes domestic hot water.  The bottom chunks we do not split as the furnace is happy with whatever I throw in.  The only requirement is that the chunk is light enough for me to pick up and throw in the furnace.  The top of the tree is either small enough that no splitting is required or large enough that it might be split once or so.  I will show you our splitter when we get it out in 2 weeks or so.  Right now we are only felling and sawing up trees.

The trick with wood cutting is to pick up  and/or handle the wood as few times as possible.  Ideally, we do not want to pick up and move wood more than once.   We tend to thin one area of woods each spring so that we have multiple trees to cut in one general location.  We set the tractor and skidder up in a central location in the woods and then cut trees in a semicircle behind the skidder.  Getting the trees to fall the right way is a skill but can usually be done with some accuracy.  When the trees are down we hook the tree base to the skidder and pull all the trees to a central location where we cut them up.  We usually haul the tree base up to the tractor , saw off some chunks, then pull the tree in some more.  In the end we want a big pile of sawed up wood in one location behind the tractor.  Should we need to do any splitting we have all the wood in one location ready to be split.

When we gather wood we put it in the front loader of the tractor so that it can be dumped in place at the woodshed.  If we get it right we’ve touched the wood once to load it and sometimes twice if we have to split it.

Out skidder is pictured below.  It is not a large one as we are usually not hauling timber sized logs.  The winch is in the middle with a long cable.  the chains go around the tree trunk and are connected to the winch cable.  The skidder then “skids” the tree bottom by winch up to the back of the skidder.  We can then attach the chain to the skidder at the top of the bottom blade and haul the tree farther using the tractor but usually this is not necessary.  If we can get the skidder into a location we can usually get the loader into the same location to transport the wood.   We’ll show you more of the process as we get farther along.

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Alcohol in Maple Sap?

An interesting article popped up in my reading about isopropyl alcohol used in cleaning maple sap tubing.  Apparently it is being used in Canada as a cleaning agent in flushing out maple sap tubing when the season is finished.  It has been somewhat effective in the cleaning process but here is the rub.  This chemical is banned by the EPA in the United States for such uses.   Isopropyl alcohol is considered a pesticide by the EPA and is banned from use in the USA as it has not been reviewed to show that it is effective and safe for this use.

On our farm we have only used water and compressed air to clean tubing for some time now.  We were not aware that Canadian operations could and did use other compounds in cleaning.  Apparently the tubing must be well rinsed  to eliminate the alcohol from the system before sap from the system can be used to collect sap for boiling down into syrup. There doesn’t appear to be any standard procedure created to ensure that the system has been adequately rinsed.  Producers are “on their own” to decide if the system is alcohol free or if they even need to rinse.

Not all Canadian producers are using isopropyl alcohol and many of those that are using it are probably rinsing their tubing after using it but no one has done any research as to whether residues are showing up in Canadian maple sap or maple syrup.  One thing is clear.  It is illegal to use isopropyl alcohol in maple tubing in the United States so US syrup should not have any residues in it.

Fresh maple sap collected.

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New Grading accuracy for Maple Syrup

We have new grading instruments to show off during our open house this weekend.  Previously we used a hydrometer and a visual grading kit to determine whether we had the proper sugar content in our syrup and what grade it is.  Both worked adequately but depended on the skill of the operator in determining the reading and some skill in interpreting the reading.

A hydrometer measures density or specific gravity of a liquid at a specific temperature by floating at a certain height in a sample.  Since almost all of the dissolved solids in maple syrup are sugars this instrument ends up measuring sugar content at a specific temperature.  The problem is knowing what temperature your syrup is at when you test it and making sure the hydrometer is free of congealed syrup which would make it float lower in a sample thus giving you a lower reading of sugar content than was actually there.  Our new instrument is a refractometer which measures sugar content over a broader range fo sugar content and at any temperature using refraction of light.  We can measure the sugar content in syrup or sap at any temperature.  This allows for more accurate production.   We still use a hydrometer as it gives a much quicker reading but we then recheck with the refractometer to get better accuracy.

When we grade syrup we grade both taste and color.  Taste is still a subjective judgement but we can now be more accurate on color.  color closely correlates with grade so that lighter syrups have a smoother, more delicate flavor and darker syrups have a heavier more robust flavor.  Up until this year we used a grading kit that compared a sample of syrup to colored plates that represented the limits of a grade of syrup. We had to judge for ourselves whether the sample was lighter or darker than the grading standard which is the glass plate.  Our new grading kit measures light transmittance and gives a number from 1 to 125 for the amount of light the sample will let pass through it.  Each grade of syrup has a band of numbers representing the amount of light transmittance allowed in that grade.  We can pinpoint exactly what grade the syrup is without any subjectivity.

We will demonstrate both at our open houses.  Both are pictured below:

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Grading kits on the left and hydrometer and refractometer on the right.

Our biggest maple production day ever

Monday was our biggest maple production day ever.  We made 105 gallons in one day from sap we got Sunday afternoon through Monday.  It is also a huge maple production day for still being February.  This strange winter is getting kookier by the minute.  It went up to 60 plus degrees on Sunday and was back to 19 degrees by Tuesday morning.  Who knows what March holds.  I suspect the season will end early but it is just a guess.  I have never seen weather like this in February.    If you want to see pictures of our day go to syracuse.com to see the photo story.

Maple Open Houses

It has been a typical maple season so far except for the dates. We have a 1/4 crop already and it is not even March yet. Many of my compatriots are thinking a large crop season but I tend to think things should go okay but not necessarily a bumper crop. The frost is not deep in the trees or in the ground and there is little snow cover here so any hot weather will push the trees toward budding (afterwhich no useful syrup can be produced). The weather for the next 10 days does not show any heat waves so that is a good thing.
Our maple open houses will probably come at the end of the season this year which is also as it should be. Traditionally a sugaring off party is a celebration of the maple season and happens at the end of the season when the work is done and the crop made not in the middle of the season when there is little time for a party. We look at our open houses as a celebration as well. Do come and join us if you can. It is free with good samples and other goodies to try. You can tour our sugar house and we will be around to answer questions and show you how everything is done around here. You can also hike in our sugarbush and see how we collect sap. I include an ad for Maple Weekend, which we are part of, where sugar houses across New York State are open at the same time. Dates and times are shown below.
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Our First Maple Syrup of the Season

We made our first maple syrup of the season yesterday.  We have not tapped this early ever in my time on this farm.  The weather has been warm for January and the snow not very deep.  We now use spout extenders with check valves in all our taps (see previous blog on tapping) so we no longer worry about taps drying up before the weather ends the season.  Upshot is that we can tap earlier.  This year we started tapping on January 24th.  It takes us a week or so to tap and then almost a week longer to get leaks out of our tubing system and sugar house ready to process sap.  We missed most of a run that was around February 1 but we got most of sap that ran this last week.  We’ve made syrup on 2 days this week.  Not large amounts of sap as the temperature drops below freezing at sunset and doesn’t come up in the morning until 10:30 or so but the sap did come.  Now we’ll be off for a week or so as we are having a good cold snap.  The old timers (is that me now?) use to say that a good cold snap early in the season can often induce the trees to sweeten the sap on the next run.  I have seen it happen so we shall see.  Below is a sample of what we made yesterday (about 33 gallons).

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