If you have ever taken a farm tour, stopped at a roadside farm stand, picked your own fruit at a farm, gone to a wine tasting or taken hands-on classes (e.g. inoculating mushroom logs) on a farm, for example, you have participated in agritourism. Agritourism is an interesting facet of agriculture, and can be defined as any activity that brings visitors to a farm. It is a way for the community to experience the farm and aspects of farming firsthand. For farms small and large, this can be an important way to engage with potential customers and the community, and to bring in additional income to help sustain the farm.
A favorite local event is the Farm Tours organized by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. I first went on the Piedmont Farm Tour years ago, and was hooked on visiting as many farms as I could in the following years. It is such a great way to meet our local farmers, learn about the why and how of their farm, and see the astonishing diversity of farming in the region. If you missed the Piedmont Farm Tour this weekend, there are more Farm Tours coming up!
I recently had an opportunity to visit a type of farm not found in our region – a sucrerie or sugar shack- which is a farm that taps maple trees mainly for making maple syrup and also gives people a chance to see how maple syrup was made, among other activities (including a meal of traditional, regional food). We were lucky to catch one of the last few days of the tapping season and got to see maple syrup being made on site.
The maple sugaring season is quite short, only 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the weather. The temperatures need to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day for the sap to run. If temperatures drop below freezing during the day, the sap stops running temporarily. Once the temperatures stay above freezing, and the trees begin to bud, the season is over.
Although most maple sap is now collected in tubing that runs from the tree to storage vats and then processed commercially, the farm we visited, Sucrerie de la Montagne in Rigaud, Quebec, west of Montreal, still collects the sap in buckets. This old maple sugaring farm is 120 acres and has been owned by the Faucher family since 1978, though maple sap has been tapped at the site for many years before. The farm has around 2100 taps to collect the maple sap for making syrup, which is a small batch production. One of their assistant’s family farm has around 24,000 taps. On the day we visited, the wood fire was going strong and the maple sap was being reduced to syrup. Even though it reached 70 degrees outside, there was still snow on the ground. The sap made a musical plinking through the woods as it dripped into the metal buckets.
The sap can spoil quickly, and so it needs to be made into syrup or other maple sugar product within a few days after it is collected. Collecting the sap from the buckets requires the buckets be emptied twice a day, so the few weeks of the maple sugar season is a labor intensive time between collecting the sap and making syrup.
It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. The sap is heated to just over 7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water (water boils at 212 degrees, so syrup is made around 219 degrees) in large vats called reducers.
When the syrup is made, it is filtered to remove any impurities and stored in a cool environment for up to a year. Other products can be made from the sap, and are heated to higher temperatures to reduce out more of the water content, including maple taffy and maple sugar.
It is understandable why maple syrup production is not done in this small scale, labor-intensive manner anymore, but it was a truly wonderful experience to see all that went in to maple syrup production, and to walk through the woods in snow on a warm, sunny day.