Once a hobby, a family's love for syrup has turned into a push for sustainability
BURLINGTON COUNTY - A family farmette in the Wading River section of Bass River Township bustles with activity, even on a cold Saturday morning.
The farm is home to the Vogel family: husband and wife Frank and Judith and their three daughters, Violet, Lydia and Jane, who all take part in sugaring maple trees.
On this day, the Vogels plan on processing a large batch of maple syrup that they collected by means of tapping red maple trees.
“It started as an experiment to see what would happen if we tapped our maple trees. We got enough for a few pancake breakfasts,” explained Judith.
Six years later and the family hobby has grown to the point that they have enough maple to soak a year's worth of pancakes and plenty left over to share with family and friends.
The day begins with chopping wood to feed a maple syrup evaporator that Frank and Judith recently acquired.
Once the evaporator is fired up, Frank and oldest daughter Violet venture out to collect buckets of sap water scattered throughout their farm and neighboring properties. Frank acknowledges his neighbors who let him “borrow” their trees each spring.
“They have graciously been letting us tap trees for years, and we are grateful that they let our family tromp all over their land to have this experience.”
After collecting almost 20 gallons of sap from over a dozen locations, Frank and Violet return home to start the sap boil.
With help from daughters Lydia and Jane, Frank pours partially frozen sap water into the heating pan at the top of the evaporator.
From sap to syrup
Most red maple sap found in South Jersey is one to two percent sugar and the amount of sap collected to produce 1 gallon of finished syrup can vary from 20 to 60 gallons, depending primarily on the sap's sugar content.
A single red maple tree can yield 10 gallons of sap over a season, which lasts on average 4 to 6 weeks.
A large amount of water must be evaporated from the sap to produce a finished syrup.
The sap is heated to just above the boiling point of water, 212 degrees, to reach ideal syrup thickness.
The process is tricky, but Frank knows how long to heat the sap to evaporate enough water out without affecting the color or texture of the resulting syrup.
Once the boiling process is finished, Frank moves the syrup from the evaporator into a large pot.
The final step involves one more heating of the syrup which takes place on an oven burner in the Vogel’s kitchen.
Syrup is poured into a smaller sauce pot and reheated to a near boil before it is poured into containers for final storage.
Judith pours the warm syrup into sterilized canning jars and fills them full so that very little air is inside to create a tight vacuum seal.
Syrup and sustainability
Judith is a math professor at Stockton University and a member of the school's team tasked to promote maple sugaring in the South Jersey region.
The project is part of a three-year, $410,000, grant the university received from the United States Department of Agriculture to promote maple sugaring in the area.
“We hope landowners get the bug to do this and promote maple syrup production," Judith said.
"The genesis of what we are doing isn't about mass maple syrup production" says Frank. “It's about sharing with the community the idea of what your family can do as a renewable, sustainable resource in your backyard and that's really what the Stockton grant is.”
Professor of Environmental Science Aaron Stoler gathered equipment for a tree tapping demonstration in a wooded area near the school’s main campus.
A power drill, stainless steel taps, silicone tubing and several buckets were on hand for members of the media to see.
Judith Vogel, the mathematics professor and farmette owner, held a jar of maple syrup, processed on her family farm, for members of the media to taste.
“It’s so simple. People have done this since the Native American times,” said Vogel.
The demonstration was part of the school’s pilot project to promote maple sugaring in South Jersey.
Stoler and Vogel are part of a team at Stockton who have been awarded a United States Department of Agriculture grant to promote maple sugaring in the area.
“We are passionate about economic and environmental sustainability and look forward to working with the local community,” said Stoler. “And, of course, we all like maple syrup, particularly when it is made locally and poured over pancakes.”
The project team is looking for area residents who have access to multiple red maple trees and are willing to invest the time to collect and process the sap into syrup.
“The ultimate goal of the grant is to encourage maple syrup production by home-hobbyists and commercial sellers in New Jersey said Stoler, lead investigator on the grant. “To this end, research questions will specifically address issues of sap volume, syrup quality, ecological forest management, and return-on-investment.”
Materials and training to collect sap will be provided. Participants keep the syrup and are asked to record the amount of sap and syrup obtained and allow a Stockton research assistant to collect soil and vegetation samples from the homeowner’s property.
Anyone interested in participating in the pilot program can contact Vogel at Judith.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Syrup tapping is about more than creating new family traditions
Meredith Massey and her husband Jason Simmons are participating in Stockton's pilot program to produce their own maple syrup from red maples on their permaculture farm in Hammonton.
The couple sees sap collecting as another resource to add to their farm which also includes bee keeping for honey and raising chickens and ducks.
With the help of Aron Stoller, one of the team members on Stockton’s grant, the couple identified 10 red maple trees to tap in the hopes of learning the process and introducing their children, Ember and Walker to a new farm project.
“Permaculture is about using all the resources you have and working with nature to provide us with outputs, tapping our trees is a sustainable way to provide us with maple syrup. We are interested to give it a go and see if it works.” says Massey.
She also notes that it’s a great project to celebrate the coming of Spring. “We try to celebrate every season in nature’s cycle. Every season has a different product that the farm produces so this could be one of the few ventures to get involved with during late winter”.
Massey also mentions the family bonding and education part of the project.
“One of the reasons why we started the farm was to be more self sufficient because we want our children to see where our food comes from, how much work is involved and to be more knowledgable about how that food is produced. We try to involve them in everything we do on the farm. It also gives them a reason to be outside, to be more connected to nature.” says Massey.
Adam Monacelli is a regional photographer/videographer for The Daily Journal and Courier-Post. He has worked in the newspaper industry for over 25 years. If you have a neat video or photo idea, email him at email@example.com. Help support local journalism with a Daily Journal subscription.