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Meet Your Farmers: Don Weed of Schoolyard Sugarbush in New Hope, New York
"On average we need around 57 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup."
Ah, late winter. A time when intrepid local eaters are sick of leftover beets and kale from the farmers' markets. But do not despair, things are starting to turn around! One of the most important and delicious signs that spring is upon us? Maple syrup season. All over the Northeast and Canada, sap is starting to flow, and thankfully people like Don Weed of Schoolyard Sugarbush in New Hope, New York, are there to harvest it and boil it down to pure, delicious, maple syrup.
Yesterday was the first run of the season but in between checking tubes and chopping wood, Don had a chance to catch up with us about his operation.
Name: Don Weed
Farm: Schoolyard Sugarbush in New Hope, New York
Taps: Around 10,000, but we've lost track. You get into a situation when you get to certain size you think you know what you've got then a tree will die, a couple will fall down, you take off this tap, that one. It gets to a point where you don't know what you've got to be honest with you. We have about 60 to 80 miles of tubing.
That must mean a lot of sap. How much do you process in a year? Oh, I don't know for sure. I know last year one day the power went off around 6:30 a.m. and by the time it came back on at 4 p.m. we had 22,000 gallons of sap backed up. I wouldn't say that was an uncommon day.
Wow. And your operation is all wood-fired. Where do you get all the wood? We get most of it from our own wood lot. Mostly from natural ash die-back.
It is the beginning of the season now, correct? What are the ideal conditions for good sap flow? The season generally runs for the month of March and sometimes into the first week of April. Occasionally you will get the last week of February. You need freezing nights and warm days. The most ideal is an evening below 25°F and a day around 45°F. The more days like that you can get the better your season will be.
What is your ratio of sap to syrup? What is ideal? On average we need around 57 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Some years you find that down around 42 or 44 °F.
What makes a good syrup? The biggest factor is the atmosphere, the weather conditions of the day or two before and the day of the run. It needs to be cool at night. If it isn't the sap is not replaced with a good sugar content, so you get less sugar in a given amount of liquid. Sap has an average of 2% sugar content, and if it doesn't freeze that goes down to around 1.8%. The later in the season the lower that gets.
You make more than just syrup, you also make maple cream. Tell me about that. It's purely maple syrup. You boil it a little bit further and make it thicker, then you cool it down below 50°F and stir it, and it makes like a whipped honey. But you have to get it cold to get air to go in to it.
I heard that your maple cream won a huge food show a few years ago? The Fancy Food Show? (Laughs.) Yeah. I was working with New Hope Mills and the New York Department of Ag and Marketing. They had an extra table and at the last minute we ended up going. It was picked as the #1 food item in the entire show out of 150,000 food items. We laughed because we're farmers—farmers don't go to shows like that. And we won with a natural food item against things that were really high technology foods.
How long have you been doing this? How did it all start? Something like 16 years. It started as a homeschool project for my daughter. She got a dozen taps for Christmas and didn't even know what they were. My wife said you'll learn, those are taps for making maple syrup. My daughter eventually left and when my youngest son came back from college, my wife told him to read some of these books. My son said "yeah I think I'll try that," and it's just kept getting bigger and bigger every year.
And how did you learn? We actually started with a book called Backyard Sugaring, a little paperback that's probably about 80 to 90 pages. But it tells you ways to do it economically, what you need to concentrate on, pitfalls to avoid, things like that.
Do you use maple syrup as a substitute sugar in your cooking a lot? We don't have sugar in the house; we have syrup in the house. We're converted. Occasionally for a frosting or something we might buy some confectioner sugar.
Any tips or recipes for maple syrup? In pretty much any recipe you can use a half cup of syrup instead of a cup of white sugar and you'll get the same sweetness. You just need to take out three spoonfuls of liquid from the recipe, because of the liquid in the syrup. The calories for syrup and sugar are the same for the same measurement, so by using half a cup of syrup instead of a cup of sugar, you are eating half the calories.
About the interviewer: Carson Poole calls the Finger Lakes home but is living in New York City trying hard to maintain his farm boy credibility. His first job, at age 10, was in roadside corn sales. He is known to enjoy fresh local food and handcrafted spirits and liqueurs.