There’s two types of people in this world: those who think that waffles are the best vehicle for maple syrup, and those who think that pancakes are the best and highest use of the natural sweetener. The discussion can sometimes become spirited at the end of the “Tap Into Maple” programs held each Saturday in March at Prescott Farm Environmental Education Center.
“We have a great pancake–waffle debate among our participants,” said Andie Hession, community and school programs director at Prescott Farm. She doesn’t pick a side, though. She lets the two factions battle each other while she sips her coffee, sweetened with a drizzle of syrup made right there at the Laconia center’s sugar shack.
Prescott Farm doesn’t make a lot of syrup. They typically make enough to provide samples for the people who come to their maple programs, which show participants how to identify sugar maples, how to put taps into the trees, and how that sap is collected and turned into syrup. Leftover syrup is used by the center’s preschool program – and Hession’s coffee mug.
It turns out that Prescott Farm is not atypical of maple sugarmakers in New Hampshire, said Nick Kosko, president of NH Maple Producers Association. Three-fourths of his association’s members are small-scale, backyard producers, with fewer than 1,000 taps.
But those small producers add up to something big. The state’s maple crop produces about 160,000 gallons each year, good for $6 million on the open market. That crop, and the people who produce it, are celebrated each March – and this weekend in particular – with the Annual NH Maple Weekend, which encourages maple producers to open their sugar shacks to visitors.
And those visitors come, Kosko said. Some places offer samples of fresh syrup, syrup-making demonstrations, maple candies and confections, coffee, doughnuts, pancakes or other attractions.
This will be the 24th NH Maple Weekend, and Kosko said the event is as important to the industry as the sap is to making syrup.
“It’s very important,” Kosko said. The weekend gives the public the chance to get out of the house and connect with their neighbors as winter loosens its grip on the region. It also gives maple producers a chance to sell their products directly to consumers. For some association members, their sales this weekend will equal the amount of syrup they sell the other 363 days of the year. Many syrup producers are also farmers or contractors, and that revenue comes at a time of year when they typically don’t have any other income.
“This is the single most important weekend in the NH maple industry,” Kosko said. “Get out and help your local maple producers.”
As many backyard producers as there already are, there could be many, many more. Andy Fast, field specialist for the UNH Cooperative Extension, said making your own maple syrup offers a kind of inroad to forestry in general. He runs a workshop every once in a while for people interested in getting started, and said anyone with access to sugar maples – red maples can also be tapped – should consider making their own syrup.
“You can start real small, get a couple of buckets and taps, have a nice family activity,” he said.
To get a gallon of syrup, Fast said you’d need to have several trees to tap. He said only trees larger than 12-inches in diameter should be tapped, and that sugarers should only place one tap per ten-inches of diameter in that tree. In other words, a 20-inch tree can have two taps, a tree 30 inches across can support three taps. On average, each tap provides enough sap to produce one quart of syrup each year.
Maple sugaring is a practice that goes back centuries. Indigenous people were making maple sugar before European colonists arrived, and Fast said the activity is something of an antidote to the electronic and frenzied contemporary life.
“I think it’s really, for many people, therapeutic. Being outdoors in the cold, it’s refreshing, meditative, repetitive actions, working hard, reaping benefits.” In some ways, it’s similar to gardening, Fast said. “You get to enjoy whatever you produce at the end of it.”
Maple production also lends itself to social engagement. It takes a while for the sap to be boiled down to syrup – it takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup – and people tend to invite a friend or family member for company and conversation during the boil.
“Slow down, there’s a lot of waiting, talk and spend time together,” Fast said.
Finding a sugar shack
Judging by the attendance at Prescott Farm’s maple programs, there’s a rising interest in how syrup is made. Last year, a total of 223 people came for a maple program at the education center. More than 100 attended last Saturday’s programs alone. This year is sure to set a new record for Prescott Farm’s maple program, which will be held at 10 and 11 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m. on March 23 and 30, and which costs $10 for nonmembers who pre-register at www.prescottfarm.org.
Prescott Farm is far from the only sugar house visitors can choose from this weekend. The website nhmapleproducers.com has a “find a sugarhouse” page that lists the sugar shacks across the state that are welcoming visitors this weekend. Here’s a selection near Laconia:
HT Farm, 60 Federal Street
Todd’s Sugar Works, 78 Rogers Road
Shepherd’s Hut Market, 637 Morril Street
Sunnyside Maples, 1089 Route 106N
Torsey’s Hillcrest Maple Farm, 178 Upper Oxbow Road
Journey's End, 295 Loudon Road
Huckins Farm, 333 Sanborn Road
Just Maple at Green Acres Farm, 475 School Street