Simon and the Sugar Bush &
Making Syrup on Your Homestead

by Charlie Tennessen
June – July 2019
I buried an old friend recently. Simon was a 13-yearold Cotswold sheep who lived nearly his entire life on my 4-acre Wisconsin homestead, Anarchy Acres. Thirteen is old for a sheep, so it was not unexpected when I found his lifeless body in the stall on a late spring morning. Still, I was saddened by this discovery. Once past the initial shock, I fed the other animals and proceeded to dig a final resting place for Simon. Just before filling the hole back with dirt, I paused, as I always do when burying a member of my farm community. I think of what made this individual special, and I leave a small offering of my appreciation. Sometimes it’s a few dandelions, some fresh grass or maybe red clover hay
For Simon, I removed a fresh bud from a nearby box-elder tree and nestled it into his thick winter wool. As I covered Simon with dirt, I thought about the spring maple syrup season, and how I first came to make syrup on my homestead. Simon, you see, is the sheep who taught me how to make maple syrup.
ponies packing
Simon, a wise old sheep, late last summer.
One of the first things I did after moving to my farm in 2006 was to look for maple trees to tap. I had some experience in my childhood making syrup from a silver maple that grew in my back yard. It was a small-scale affair, with poor sap flow and many buckets or bags of sap lost to wind, raccoons, or both. A good season would yield one or two cups of syrup after boiling down on the stove. The syrup lasted for one or two pancake breakfasts, and then it was gone until next year.

But now I had a 4-acre farm. Four acres! I dreamed about all of the syrup and all of those pancakes! I scanned my new holding for maple trees and started drilling. Tapping trees is not rocket science, I thought to myself. You drill a hole, tap a spile in and catch whatever comes out in a bucket, bag or hose. I drilled, tapped and waited.

Nothing came out of the trees. Nothing. Every hole was dry that first year — what could have gone wrong? By the beginning of April, I pulled the taps and put my buckets away. As spring turned to summer, my “maple” trees filled out with leaves, and I could see that I had been tapping elm trees. You can’t make maple syrup from elm trees, regardless of how enthusiastic you may be. There were no maple trees on my farm, and I put away my dreams of homemade maple syrup.

The farm returned to its original state, that of continuous change. Soon it was time to shear the sheep, a first time for them and for us. I had a brand new electric shears, which terrified me with their power, heat, and razor-sharp teeth. The sheep were also terrified, with good reason. Shears cut skin as well as wool, and it was hard to hold the uncooperative sheep. After a few cuts, the sheep grew to fear the shears and the shearer. But the sheep were shorn.
packing fjord with pannier
A box-elder bud in late spring. Emerging buds mark the end of the sap flow for the year.
Sheep are not noted for their intelligence. Goats are inquisitive, donkeys are clever, chickens are persistent, and even rabbits possess a basic curiosity. But sheep are a blank slate. Most sheep I know run from people and show little interest in the world around them. They will methodically eat grass all day long and stay out in foul weather after every other farm animal has sought shelter. Sheep are the last animal to notice anything unusual around the farm, like a stray dog on the tree line. It didn’t seem to me that sheep were very smart.

It was this attitude I had in mind when I noticed Simon licking a box-elder tree one day the next spring. The other animals were eating grass, but Simon showed a peculiar interest in this ungainly box elder tree about 50 feet from the front of the barn. He was licking the bark, looking very content. Simon, why are you licking this tree?

In my part of the world, and probably everywhere else, box elders are considered “trash trees.” They grow quickly along fence lines or in neglected pastures. Boxelders typically send up multiple trunks and do not produce strong or straight wood. They are knotty, ugly and tend to fall over and die after 40 years. They’re good for firewood and not much else.

Or are they? There was a fresh scar in the bark of this box-elder, where a live branch had recently broken off in a wind storm. Some kind of liquid was running out of the scar, and Simon was lapping it up. I’ve never seen a sheep this absorbed before.
ponies packing
Charlie boiling down sap in his outdoor evaporator.

 

Box elder. It’s also known as ash-leaf maple, Manitoba maple and elf maple. Pretty soon, the light went on in my head, and I realized that Simon had discovered maple sap on Anarchy Acres. Simon — a sheep — had succeeded where I had failed. While Simon enjoyed his sap-sugar high, I shook my head in amazement. .

Acer negundo is a member of the maple family. Although sugar maple, black maple and red maple are the most common commercial syrup trees, box-elder is also occasionally used in maple syrup production. There are actually more than 100 maple species, and many of them can be tapped for syrup. .

Without stopping to thank Simon, I went to gather my buckets and began tapping the many box elder trees on my property. There was a good flow that spring, and I spent a busy two weeks collecting and boiling down the sap. I boiled the many gallons of sap in an outdoor, wood-fired evaporator. It takes 40 gallons of sap, or more, to make a single gallon of maple syrup. .

I’ve tapped trees in my box elder sugar bush every year since that first season when Simon taught me which trees to tap for syrup. I’ve actually nurtured some of the younger box-elders on the property, knowing that they will someday be good syrup trees. If not for Simon, I probably would have cut them down. .

Simon’s passing this spring was bittersweet. He was the last member of the founding herd on my farm, which, for most of the last decade, consisted of four goats and two sheep. About three years ago, these animals began to reach the end of their natural lifespan, dying one by one. Eventually, late last winter, Simon was the last one remaining. I felt terrible and quickly arranged to borrow two female sheep from my cousin, so that Simon would have some companionship. These two energetic Dorpers, a type of hair sheep, were young and possibly pregnant. Perfect for the farm and for Simon.
ponies packing
Buster the lamb resting in the shade of a box-elder tree.
The ewes got along great with Simon, and, by early April one of them had a lamb, Buster. Simon spent the last few days of his life in the company of this rambunctious ram. Simon welcomed this youngster into the world with a grace that I had come to expect of him. And it was Buster, along with his mother and auntie, who watched over Simon when he passed away. I'm grateful that Simon died in a clean stall surrounded by new life.

Since Simon's passing, Buster has shown a distinct interest in the many box elder trees out in the pasture. On his first day out of the barn, I found him playing around the base of that original box elder tree that Simon discovered. Buster likes to lie down in the shade of the box elders while his mother grazes nearby. Did Simon whisper something to him about these remarkable trees?
Thanks to Simon, I now know that not every "trash tree" is actually trash. I've learned to look around my farm, and in my life, for any overlooked trash that might enrich the world. I'm grateful for this lesson, as well as all the pancakes with homemade syrup I've enjoyed over the last decade. Thank you, Simon.
Making Syrup on Your Homestead
Anyone with access to a couple of sap-producing trees and the right springtime weather can make syrup at home. Although sugar maple trees are the standard for making syrup, any member of the maple family will produce sap that can be boiled down into syrup. Not every type of maple has as high a sugar content as sugar maple, however, so it may take a little more sap to make syrup. Other tree species that can be tapped for syrup include birch, hickory and black walnut.

Sap runs when the nighttime temperature is below freezing, and the daytime high gets to 40 degrees F or more. It’s best to tap trees once the sap is flowing, not before. Holes heal quickly, and the flow slows down the longer the tree has been tapped. When conditions are right, go tap one or two trees and see if anything comes out. If the flow is good, proceed to tap the rest of your trees. Otherwise, wait a few days and try again. Keep collecting for as long as the sap flows, then pull the taps for the season. Sap collected towards the end of the season, when the trees start to bud, will produce darker syrup. But it’s still very tasty!

packing fjord with pannier
No matter what kind of tree you tap, the procedure will be the same. Collect as much sap as you can and boil it down until it becomes syrup. If you have more than a few gallons of sap, it should be boiled outside in a pan. Any steel pan will do, but the more surface area, the better. Surface area is directly proportional to how fast the sap can be boiled off. The ideal pan is at least 20-by-20 inches and 6 inches deep. A shallower pan can be used, but it will have to be filled more often. Stainless steel pans used in food service can be used to good effect. They have a generous lip for support. If the pans are small, purchase several and line them up together in your outdoor evaporator.

The evaporator is constructed of dry-fit cinder blocks, three blocks high. Level up some dry ground and stack the blocks so that the pan(s) are supported on the lip. The blocks will form three sides, leaving the front open to stoke the fire. Spend some extra time getting things level, so that the sap will cover your pan evenly. It’s important to never let so much sap boil off so that the bare pan is exposed to the fire. The pan will quickly be scalded with maple sugar and possibly ruined.

To tap your trees, drill a hole between 2 feet and 4 feet above the ground, at a slight upward angle, around 2 inches deep. Spiles come in two sizes, requiring either a 5/16-inch hole or 7/16-inch hole. Get the hole clean of shavings and tap in the spile. Purchase spiles online (search on “maple spiles”) or from any agricultural store or catalog.

Collect the sap in buckets. Drill a hole just below the lip and hang the bucket from the spile. I’ve been using old cat litter buckets very happily for over a decade. They’re free, have good covers and work well for me. Sap should be stored someplace cool until it can be boiled. I like to find a snow bank in the shade to stockpile my sap. I usually tap ten trees and end up boiling two to three times per season. My pan is 24- by-36 inches and it will boil off 4 to 8 gallons of sap per hour, depending on how intense the fire is. To fire the evaporator, find the driest wood you can, preferably wood that was selected and put up the season before. Hardwood produces a hotter fire, and it takes plenty of heat to boil down sap into syrup. Skim the foam off the sap occasionally. This helps remove impurities and keeps the surface open for faster evaporation.

I boil the sap outside until it’s concentrated to just a few gallons and then finish the syrup on the kitchen stove. As the sap gets closer to syrup, it’s starts to produce a caramel smell and will roll off a steel spatula in sheets. It’s perfectly acceptable to finish syrup just by “feel,” but a thermometer will help with getting each batch consistent. The magic number is 7 degrees F. Syrup should boil 7 degrees higher than straight water. So boil a pot of water and see what the temperature is. Now boil your syrup until the temperature is 7 degrees higher.

Filtering is not mandatory, but it’s a good way to get rid of the harmless “maple sand” that comes with the sap. There are different types of filters which are intended either for sap or for hot syrup. I have a large felt filter, and I pour the hot sap through it after I’ve brought it inside for finishing on the stove. This filter can be cleaned and reused.

Ordinary mason jars are perfect for long-term storage of syrup. Pour the syrup in while it is still hot and get the lids on quickly. Tip the jars upside down for a few seconds to scald and sterilize the lid. Enjoy your pancakes!

My farm is an organism, which sits above any particular animal, crop, or person that lives on the farm. It's important to me that the farm continue to exist. I know the farm must change and adapt, but I start with the farm when I plan and make decisions. Just as I've outlived Simon, some other animals and a few box elder trees here on Anarchy Acres, someday the farm will outlive me. Even now, there are young box elder trees growing larger every year, soon to be good sap producers. There are new animals calling Anarchy Acres home, and some of them may outlive me. The farm continues to nurture, grow, and provide.

I am in awe. rh house logo
Author
Charlie Tennessen shares his Anarchy Acres homestead with his other sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens and box elder trees.. This article appeared in the June/July 2019 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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