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Tapping Trees Two

OK, last time we gave you some pointers on equipment and preparations to make in order to tap.  Seeing as we are now tapping ourselves perhaps a step by step on the actual process would be useful.

When you tap a maple you should first know that it is a maple.  We can tell by the bark but hopefully you have already scoped out the tree in the summer and know that it is a maple by the leaves.  If the tree has not been tapped before you don’t have to worry about old holes but if it has been tapped then you do.  Try to stay 3 inches or so away horizontally from an old hole and 8 to 10 inches vertically when you tap again.  The old hole creates a pocket of dead wood that is about 3 inches wide and extends up and down from the hole about 8 to 10 inches.   Don’t be alarmed by the prospect of making dead wood.  Remember that only the outer 3 inches of the trunk are alive anyway.  As the tree grows each year some of the outer sap wood dies off and becomes part of the heart of the tree which is dead.  New wood will cover up the hole you make just like your lips closing over your teeth.  Eventually there is enough new wood over the hole that the hole itself becomes part of the heart.  Just don’t tap the tree so much that it can’t produce new wood faster than you create holes.

When you tap the tree drill at a slight uphill angle so that the hole drains.  Most taps today are 5/16 holes just an inch to an inch and a half deep.  Lightly hammer in your spile or spout extender immediately after you drill.  Do not hammer harder than light tapping on the spile.  Too much force can split the wood tissue along a vertical line causing more damage to the tree and leakage of sap.  Too much force can also make it very difficult to get the spile out after the season.  Gently tap by choking up on the hammer handle until you get a solid sound off the spile or spout extender telling you that it has seated.  Now just wait for the sap to flow!

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Here’s Mike drilling a hole.  A two tap tree so he will drill a hole for the line on the right next.   The finished hole with spout extender on the right.

Tapping time again

The daylight is starting to get a little longer and the bitter cold of the last 2 weeks has subsided.  We have decided to start tapping trees for this season coming up.  I thought I would show the backyard sugarmakers out there what the tapping equipment looks like because it is fairly simple so I think most anyone can tap a few trees without breaking the bank.

We use a rather standard setup so I will show you the equipment so you can see for yourself how to proceed.  We use 18 or 20 volt drills (we have 3) with multiple batteries so we can tap all day without running out of juice for the drills.  You beginners will be fine with one drill.  The standard is a 5/16″ hole made with high speed wood bit.  We use special wood bits that have biting tips both in the center and on the edge on 2 sides to make a cleaner cut.  Any 5/16″ wood bit will do.  These can be purchased at any hardware store.  The drill with the bit is shown below.  Notice that we put a stop on the bit so the drill only goes in 1.5″.   This the most desirable depth.

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Now on to the taps themselves.  We use tubing so all our fittings are designed for tubing.  I would recommend that even hobbyists use tubing even if the tube does no more than empty into a pail on the ground.  Metal spiles are just plain expensive and not always adaptable to every situation.  We use a special spout called a “stubby” which stays on the tubing  year round.  We drill the hole into the tree and gently tap into the tree a fitting called a check valve spout extender.  We use these because they have one way valves in them.  When sap flows the extender lets it flow down the tube.  When the tree freezes it prevents the tree from sucking sap back into the tree.  Believe it or not this happens at every freeze up and draws contaminated sap back into the hole thus infecting it and making the hole life shorter and subsequent sap flows more bacteria ridden. Our stubby simply gets tapped into the spout extender.  The two fittings are shown below with the stubby on the left and the extender added on the right.  The extender is supposed to be used only one year so a new sterile one is put into the new hole each year.   If you want to save money you can buy plastic spouts that go directly into the tree.  Keep in mind that they are difficult to clean effectively and may have to be discarded after the season.

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More on the tapping process next time.

Snow is finally here!

It has been a mild winter so far.  We have repaired the tubing system we use to collect sap very easily as it has been easy to get around in the woods.  We are now ready to begin tapping the trees in the next week or so.  What we have missed is some snow!

For many of you a winter without snow would be just terrific but not for a good maple season.  We want the trees to be frozen down to the roots (just cold weather will do that) but also insulated from the warm early days of spring by snow cover.  Ideally, a slow spring where the trees and roots thaw out slowly is going to give us the best yield of sap.  Snow helps slow down the thaw a bit and extend the season.

Generally, areas in the northeast that produce maple have longer springs with a series of freeze and thaw periods.  Fringe maple areas like Minnesota and Indiana make fine syrup but have shorter seasons as the areas warm up pretty much all at once.  Having said that anything can happen in a particular year! Winter scene below showing some tubing in the foreground.

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New Technology in Maple

After the Christmas break we are now at it for a new maple season.  My gang (3) all went to the maple “convention” on Vernon, NY over the weekend.  I have written about this meeting before but to summarize it is the largest meeting of maple producers, vendors, and researchers in the industry with over 1000 attendees.  I am always amazed that such a meeting can be organized and put on by a high school agriculture program and put on in a high school.  Kudos to all involved.

I am continually impressed by how technology has changed maple without ruining the product.  Just one small example.  In grading syrup we used to have (and still do have) a set of colored plates that we compared to samples of syrup and judged the color and hence the grade based on that.  The plates were pricey to produce so the kits were  not cheap.  This year I bought a new kit for less than I paid for the old kit some years ago which uses a refractometer to give a reading of how much light can pass through a sample of syrup.  The darker the syrup the less transmittance.  The grades of syrup technically have a transmittance level specified for each grade which the old grading kits tried to duplicate with colored plates.  Now you just have a sample and the machine tells you the transmittance without you judging for yourself.  Pretty accurate and much less subjective.  All for less money as well!

No worries that the art and romance is gone.  No grading kit can test for flavor.  Off flavors can still only be detected by tasting the product.

The old color plates are below.  You put your sample in the second or fourth slot as the others are actually colored glass.   The new kit is not nearly as pretty to look at.  Just an egg shaped analyzer that fits in your hand:

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The Christmas Tree Changes

Our Christmas tree season is now full on and sales in the first week have been brisk with many happy customers.
The outlook for the industry however, appears to be a downer. National surveys are showing a continued decline in the use of real Christmas trees. Just 10 years ago about 50% of households used real trees. Now the percentage is just under 20%. I can think of a number of reasons for the decline but I also think there is not one overriding reason why the industry is not expanding.
One cause is that for large parts of the country good trees are not available at a reasonable price. That would certainly be true in many parts of the southwestern US as well as many urban areas. Another thing is the changing demographics of the country. There is a bulge in households of older Americans who have raised children and are now in households where wee ones are not around so they are thinking the expense of a real tree is not really worth it. There are also a growing number of non-Christian households (but still a relatively small number). The Christmas tree is really a northern European tradition so it might not translate so well into all Christian cultures either.
I personally do not see the trend in our area. Good trees are plentiful and unlike the big cities trees are often under $50.00. Our sales are growing year to year. Maybe the northeast is just more likely to use real trees. Our pre-cut selection below:
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Wreath making

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IMG_0373‘Tis the Christmas season and so we set up a wreath making shop. We don’t tie each bough to a wire and then turn the wire into a ring. Rather, we have a table with a clamping tool and we take pre-made rings that have open clamps welded to them. We can place bunches of boughs into an open clamp and then have the clamping tool automatically close the clamp around the boughs permanently attaching the boughs to the rings. The clamps are evenly spaced around the ring so when you have filled each one you have a wreath! We can make a wreath, no matter what size, in less than an hour this way. To start we have to cut some boughs from culled Christmas trees but after people start buying trees they have us trim the bottom branches off and then we have more wreath boughs. Voila!

Wreath time

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You know the time of year when the boughs come in for making wreaths.  We gathered earlier this week.  We let the boughs dry on the outside for a few days and then begin cutting.

The first step is to get the “tips” off the trees.  This is the new growth on the outer parts of the branches that are the greenest, thickest and most aromatic.   How long you make the tips determines the bushiness of your wreath.  The longer the pieces the “wilder” the wreath looks.  In the far back of the picture you can see the clamping table (flat table behind the atv).  We take premade metal rings that have open clamps already welded on them.  You place a grouping of tips inside the clamp and then press the pedal below the table.  The jaws come up beside the clamp and close it around the boughs.  The open clamps are evenly spaced around the ring so as you fill each open clamp going around the ring you gradually make a wreath. I must say the aroma in the garage makes for excellent working conditions. I’ll show some closeups of the rings and partially made wreaths when we start making the actual wreaths.

Beavers are back

As part of the late fall activities around here we clean out the road stream crossing and our pond outlet.  We call it beaver patrol. Beavers are forever moving upstream from the many neighbors downstream to colonize the stream.  They naturally block up the stream whereever they settle and flood the area.  They also cut down surrounding trees to make their dams.  They will cut and move a 6 inch diameter tree which is really an amazing feat when you consider their size.  Most folks think that they eat wood but they really are just chewing on the wood but consuming the bark.  

Beavers are a problem for us because we must cross a wetland surrounding a stream to get to our far Christmas tree fields and far sugar bush.  If the beavers get started they will flood our road and make access impossible.  So how do we cope.  One way we cope is to build underwater tubes made out of wire fence.  These protect culvert and bridge openings from being plugged up by making it difficult for the beavers to dam up the opening.  The wire arrangement extends upstream from the culvert opening for 6 feet or so making damming a more difficult project as they need to not just block up an opening but completely dam around these wire structures.  The structures are also underwater which makes it hard for the beavers to figure out what to plug up.  Beavers focus their attention on running water.  If the water flow is not loud (like a babbling brook!) or fast they can’t tell where to plug up.  When these structures are underwater the beavers will often try to build something on top of them but the water still flows quietly through the structure below the waterline.  These structures have been very helpful to us.

I have to admit, though, that you do have to control the beaver population.  Too many beavers can take down too many trees and eventually overcome any deterrent to damming up a stream making a live and let live policy unworkable.  Beavers are everpresent now that the fur industry is in decline so we have to remove them from our property yearly.  A new couple seems to reappear each fall.   

Winter damage

We just finished our Christmas tree shearing for the year and are now ready for the holiday season.  It is too early to pick out a tree but I will hear from people in early November who are ,apparently, pretty excited about Christmas and want to know about picking out their tree.  If we could just move some of that enthusiasm from November to January I think everyone’s winter would be more enjoyable.

Shearing is a process where we fix what damage we can on the tree and try to shape it so it grows in a uniform conical shape.  Nature makes each tree a little different but shearing helps trees that get “off the track” as they grow a corrective fix to make them attractive.  Very few trees would make it to maturity and not need a little fixing sometime in their life.

Winter damage to trees this year was some of the worst I have seen.  Concolor firs so frozen with wind that they have very small buds and consequently put on very little length to their growth.  The deer were so hungry they would eat firs down to the trunk, at least the part above the snow. 

You know how tough the winter is for the deer by what species they will chew on.  They will start on fraser fir (their favorite) but will accept balsam fir if it is around.  If they are getting realy hungry they will move to spruce and chew on that.  Spruce with its prickly needles has to be challenge to them that only humger can overcome.  The same pattern goes for groundhogs which eat branches below the deer level (isn’t nice they can all get along together).

So spruce is not eaten so much in the winter but bugs bother it in the summer.  A number of critters will feed on the top leader of spruces leaving them with dead tops.  These can often be repaired but cutting out the dead and using wire to train a new leader from the untouched cousins growing more laterally.

One tree that is fussy to grow but seems to avoid critter damage is the concolor fir.  I think the orange fragrance that it gives off is offputting to a lot of pests.  I think I will plant more of the tree as I learn more about it.

Below is one of our “herds” of trees just grazing before being sheared.

Locally produced: How important

How important is it to you to have locally produced food?  There is a lot of talk about connecting more closely with where and how the food we eat is produced but I fear that different motives drive that quest and some may not be so good for local agriculture.

I do think everyone is worried about what is in or what has been done to their food but it is a difficult job to analyze everything we eat so it comes down to who to trust as we rely on what purveyors or the government tells us.

Organic labels are good and do mean something but don’t address some issues with how animals are raised or whether you are supporting local agriculture.  How much more are you willing to pay so that local agriculture prospers and the landscapes around you remains the same?  I don’t think people in big cities care much whether agriculture in their area or state prospers but some may care about humane treatment of animals or employees on farms.  So advertising about buying local may not work in big metro areas on the east and west coasts of the US.  Similarly, how much are consumers going to pay for humane treatment and what constitutes humane treatment.  How do we convince New York City consumers to buy New York maple syrup rather than Vermont syrup or Canadian syrup.  I think there is a payoff but it is not a direct connect.

In our business whether it is Christmas trees or maple syrup the issue is Canadian imports.  While fresh, locally grown trees are important to many consumers, many look at locally grown trees as too expensive and others look at plastic as an acceptable alternative to a real tree.  Our only weapon is to use the local label so we muct convince consumers it is not too much work to have a real tree and that supporting local growers will benefit them enough to make up for any added expense.

With maple syrup it is the same idea with small twists.  Consumers looking only for price will probably choose Canadian syrup while those looking to identify with place of origin might go local.  The twist comes in because maple syrup is a food so people are very concerned with what goes into their stomachs.  If they can see how it is made they are more comfortable than with just an organic label.  It is also a better gift sometimes if it comes from their area.

The job of every farmer should be to convince you that buying local does make a difference.  I’m working on it!