CLAVERACK–It was drizzling last Saturday afternoon, the temperature 40 degrees, and a hearty group of about 30 people gathered at the Cashen family’s Farm at Miller’s Crossing for a tour of the maple syrup processing operation. The tour was presented by the Columbia Land Conservancy, which protects the entire 200 acres of vegetable fields and sugar maples from development.
Chris Cashen greeted everybody in the sugar shack, as his wife, Katie Cashen, stoked the wood fire under the boiler. The sugar shack is situated in a corner of a much larger farm shed, where excess steam swirled through the rafters.
“We had originally scheduled this tour for a week earlier but it was just too cold. The sap was not running,” said Mr. Cashen. “But since yesterday we have collected 3,400 gallons. This has been our best 36 hours ever.”
He reminded the group that the ratio of sap to the final product of translucent amber syrup is about 40 or 50 to one.
Mr. Cashen said that he started making maple syrup seven years ago with a few taps so the children could see how the process works. Now the farm has 1,800 taps. Though modest by Vermont standards, it is the largest maple syrup operation in Columbia County. All 1,800 taps are connected by a network of about four miles of light blue plastic tubing, the terminus of which is a vacuum pump housed in a small shed nearby. Mr. Cashen said the vacuum system provides a 45% better rate of production compared to the more traditional systems that rely on gravity.
Then the group trudged a short distance through mud and slush out to the sugar bush, the grove of maple trees that produce the sap. There he showed how the taps work, allowing the sap to descend but preventing it from being drawn back into the tree. The biggest problem in this part of the process involves squirrels that were chewing on the plastic tubes, causing dozens of vacuum leaks. “We spent a week running through the deep snow and listening for the hissing sound of vacuum leaks, which had to be patched,” he said.
Historian and environmental educator Justin Wexler, who accompanied the tour, described the native American tradition of maple sugaring, which he said began in the Great Lakes region hundreds of years ago. He said the Indians would cut a diagonal scar in the bark of the tree at the bottom of which they would hammer in a piece of wood from which the sap would drip. It was collected in bark buckets and boiled in hollowed logs.
Back in the sugar shack, Mr. Cashen explained another important piece of equipment he has invested in, a reverse osmosis device that forces the sap through a semi-permeable membrane. Half of the water is removed before it gets to the boiler and a great deal of energy is conserved. The sap is refined from 2% sugar to up to 10% after the reverse osmosis device. Then it goes to the evaporator where it is boiled to 66-67% sugar for the finished syrup.