Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Some Assembly Required!

I have been wishing for a real maple evaporator for a couple of years now. My cobbled-together rig made from an old woodstove left much to be desired, including the fact that it was incredibly slow and ugly. Family and friends have complimented the flavor for our maple syrup but most had never seen how it was made. Thanks to my arranging to get access to a much larger sugarbush and the starting up of our CSA, I finally had justification to purchase a small but honest-to-goodness evaporator built by a real evaporator company!

The maple sugaring supply store in our area has three gleaming stainless steel beauties in their showroom. Each time that I have visited, I have lingered over them admiringly. The largest ones are absolutely huge and encrusted with lots of complicated looking controls and gadgets. After paying my respects to the most impressive units, I always conclude with visit to the little Half-Pint "hobby" evaporator in the corner that is far less glamorous but more appropriate for my little operation and budget.

On the happy day that I went to pick mine up, I removed all of the seats from our van and headed off to the store. Day-dreaming to myself along the way, I imagined the scene as they wheeled the pretty little appliance up to my van and helped me load it in. The reality was much different. When I backed up to the loading dock, the workers had stacked a large assortment of cardboard boxes, stove pipes and over 100 firebricks for me to load up.

As the numerous boxes foretold, the process of assembling the evaporator and preparing it for its first firing was pretty involved. Sean and I were able to get the basic sheet metal stove together in one evening. After that, things progressed far more slowly due to the unexpected task of building up the interior of the unit with firebricks and mortar.

I knew that I was in trouble when I read in the instructions from the manufacturer that a total of three tubs of mortar would be required. The local dealer had only provided me with one and seemed to think that it was enough. That resulted in me skimping on the joints and trying to stretch the insufficient mortar to complete the job. At about the three-quarters complete mark I finally gave up and headed to the hardware store for more mortar. Regrettably, I couldn't find anybody who had high heat refractory mortar in stock. In the end I had to ask Janet to make the trip back to the evaporator store to get more mortar.

The biggest moment of satisfaction thus far came when we placed the stainless steel boiling pan and prewarmer on top of the completed arch. There is still more work to be done because the stove pipe hadn't been run out through the roof. For that, I've been getting some great assistance from my chimney sweeping friend who has been generous with his time and skills.

By the end of today, we should be pretty much ready to go. I still need to attach a vent fan to the existing roof vent for removal of the steam. Eventually we hope to relocate the whole rig into a new building that will house our commercial kitchen. In the mean time, we have certainly made a giant step forward. Now we just have to wait for the weather to warm up enough that we can begin to collect those sweet drops and give the new evaporator a test run.
I can hardly wait!
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