Monday, March 23, 2009

Maine Maple Syrup

Sunday was "Maine Maple Sunday", an event which takes place every third Sunday in March. All the "sugar shacks" are open to the public to view the maple syrup making process. My visit was to Parson's Maple Farms and I was surprised to see so many cars parked up to a quarter mile away from the shack. It was as typical a country Maine setting as you could get, approaching "quaint" with the home-built shack and rustic atmosphere. As I approached the farm, I could see the maple trees with taps sticking out of the bark. Small trees have one tap and larger trees have2 or 3 taps. The old way of collecting sap used buckets slung over the tap to catch the dripping, watery sap. There were a few of these on trees that were separated from the main stand of maples. And, I supposed, these buckets hanging on tree trunks added to the visual marketing making one want to buy fresh maple syrup you've seen being collected. Within the actual grove of trees that were close together however, a new system is used to collect sap. All the taps have what look like spaghetti hose attached, like you'd use in the garden for drip irrigation. The lines run from tap to tap and from tree to tree and eventually to a large collection tank or directly into the sugar shack.

Raw sap is very liquid and is filtered through course sand before arriving to the boiling vat via hoses and pipes. The whole process is pretty low-tech using gravity to feed the vat and young men constantly stoking the fire with New England hardwoods. It's a pretty heavy roiling boil to evaporate off water and steam rises within the shack and exits through the hinged roof openings. As the syrup thickens, it passes into a cooler vat for slower evaporation until just the right sugar content is reached, and is checked periodically by use of a hydrometer which measures specific gravity of the liquid.

The final step is to transfer the syrup to a vat heated to 180 degrees, which keeps it warm enough to filter a last time. It is then drawn off from a spigot into glass containers or cans and cools down, forming a vacuum in the container. There are no machines here, everything is done by hand and the containers are either plastic, tin, or glass and pre-labeled.

Syrup grade depends on the incoming sap and is not manipulated by the process. Generally the first sap of the 4-6 week sugaring season produces the lightest grade and as the tree's metabolism changes the sap becomes darker until the end of season. There are three "A" grades: 1. Light Amber, 2. Medium Amber, and 3. Dark Amber. An additional "B" grade or "cooking grade" is darker yet. Darker syrup has more maple and carmel flavor than the lighter grades, but personal preference dictates which you would buy. Most table syrup is grade A medium amber. The aroma of the smoke and maple in the sugar shack really made me want to exchange some of my cash for a lasting reminder that delightful day.

Maple sap starts running in early March and most farms consider it a hobby or side business. This year the syrup is bringing about $55 a gallon and $11 a pint retail. The process is labor intensive as producers gather sap in the afternoon and boil it down sometimes until the early hours of the next morning. If one has even one maple tree on their property, they can harvest the sap yielding up to 2 or 3 gallons a day. It'll take about 10 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Harbingers of Spring

Now that I read a list of things that signal the beginning of spring, little did I know that frost heaves are one! Apparently, nay, definitely I don't know the signs in this part of the country. A string of warm, sunny days and the official arrival of the vernal equinox on Friday has prompted universal declaration of the beginning of spring, although personally, it seems a little premature. There are still mountains of snow at the edges of the roads and parking lots from being pushed there and fields have "Native American snow" (Apache here and Apache there). The definition of a "warm" day is 50 degrees and its barely above freezing at night. Even with the prediction of 42 degree highs and near 25 at night for the next month, and more snow coming next week, it is spring. I thought when spring was declared, plants could be set out in the garden, but here you shouldn't even start seedlings indoors until next month for setting out the first of May!

Street sweeping machines are clearing sand from roadways and kicking up dust clouds. Woodchucks are emerging from their burrows, although I wouldn't recognize one if I saw it. Skunk cabbage is poking up in snowless areas of the woods, and at O'Donal's Nursery, the yellow witch hazel tree is blooming. I pass O'Donal's on the way to work, so I'll stop to see if what they are saying is true. I have seen an increase in squirrel activity and the crows have become very active and noisy apparently building nests. Sap has started running in the maples and here that's a big deal. Tomorrow is "Maine Maple Sunday" when all the maple farms will be open to the public to see how its done. I plan to attend.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Frost Heave or "A Pothole is Formed"

OMG the roads are getting worse by the day. Now that we're having some warmer days, from 8 degrees to the low 40's, the weather has turned alternately from snow to rain and back to snow. It's a confused climate and patches of bare ground are starting to show through.

Frost heave is a problem here. In particular types of soil the moisture freezes and the underlying water is drawn up toward the frozen soil and freezes causing a lens shaped ice dome. This buildup of ice forces the soil up into mounds. When this happens under the roadway, look out for a bumpy ride! Some areas of roadway actually have "frost heave" signs to warn of the impending roller coaster ride, but mostly you just come upon it unawares. On a country jaunt up by Augusta I've experienced miles of roller coaster roadway that demand a slower pace to avoid being bounced out of the driver's seat. In other places it is just a spot in the road that catches your attention.

When the ice of a frost heave melts, the soil subsides again. If this happens under the pavement it cracks and breaks the asphalt and with the repeated beating of traffic soon chunks of the bituminous material break away and a pothole is formed. Surprisingly quickly, a pothole develops into an alignment wreaking deep hole and one must be alert to steer clear of them. As the road department tries to keep up with repairs, soon sections of road are a series of patches which are just as bumpy as the original frost heaves.

Mainers don't even notice, but to me its just another example of expensive and labor intensive problems of living in the northern latitudes. I just don't know how to weigh these things against the most beautiful summers and falls imaginable.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight Savings Time

Here we go again, changing our clocks to try to force ourselves to "save daylight" which is supposed to translate into energy savings. Tonight we can think about setting our clocks forward an hour as a sort of welcoming of longer days, a biannual celebration, if you will, akin to solstice. Its a time to shake up our diurnal habits and start a new regimen. Come on, get with the program. This will be fun!

The idea is to force us into going to bed earlier and waking up earlier, something somebody, somewhere, thinks we need because we can't be trusted to use daylight hours efficiently. City dwellers don't operate by the sunlight anyway, so it might make sense to get them to work early and home while it's still light and save turning on the lights in the office. Country folk don't care what the clock says. They just work when it's light outside.

So here is what I propose: People who live in towns & cities (and probably a 2 mile radius outside city limits) should observe daylight savings time. People who live outside these limits should stay off savings time. This way country folk won't have to worry about changing all their clocks (if they have any), and cosmopolitans will be told what to do and when, easing their decision-making responsibility. It's a win-win for everybody. How many clocks do you have?