Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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At Long Last, The First Firing!

At the end of another long week at the office, I pointed my van west along the freeway while my mind wandered over my many choices for farm chores to fill my evening. From deep within one of my many pockets, a furious bumble bee buzzing told me that a call was coming in. Unhooking my seat belt, I began a race to find the phone before the caller gave up, patting pockets and urgently contorting within my many winter layers.

The call turned out to be from a couple of our new CSA members who had been watching the weather. They told me that the forecast predicted a thaw and generously volunteered to come over to our farm with their four-wheeler to help us haul the sap in. Jeri and Liz live just a few miles down the road and are helpful and friendly at every turn. We only met them a matter of weeks ago but our friendship has been growing rapidly due to our shared interest in backyard sugaring.

On Saturday morning, I busied myself with a few chores until at last the low hum of the four-wheeler could be heard coming up the driveway. Attracted by the noise, the children emerged from the house to join us as we rigged up our sleds and a cooler to serve as a sap hauling reservoir. Having that accomplished all five of us trooped out through the snowy fields toward the Sugarbush.

This turned out to be the first of two days that we would spend collecting and hauling sap from the woods. On Saturday the temperatures were low enough that the sap was frozen in large chunks in the sap sacks. This made the collection a little more difficult because the sacks had to be disassembled from their holders to permit dumping of the ice into the cooler. By Sunday the air had warmed sufficiently that the sap remained liquid. This greatly simplified things since we could simply tip the sacks over to pour out the contents.

On both days, the work of gathering and emptying the sacks went quickly. We talked and joked as we moved along. Now and then one of us would shout and proudly hold up an especially full sack for all to see as if we were contestants in a fishing derby. By the end of each trip, the cooler was full and heavy with sap.

As if triumphant hunters, we emerged from the woods following the four-wheeler with our prize in tow. Carefully picking our way over the bumpy field that I had plowed in the fall, our little parade headed for the sugar shack where the gleaming new evaporator waited. Bringing up the rear, our jovial imp of an eight-year old son lent a merry air to our progress with a harmonica that he had secreted in his pocket.

Jeri and Liz were unable to stay for the evaporating part of the weekend. They departed with our thanks and we began our preparations. We poured the sap into the preheating reservoir at the back of the evaporator and Sean did the honor of opening the spout to begin filling the pan. Once sufficient sap had accumulated to prevent scorching, I put flame to the kindling. Within a few moments we scurried outside to watch the first whisps of smoke escaping from the stack.

It seemed to take a very short time for the first tendrils of steam to begin rising from the pan. Next came that rumbling and hissing sound from the middle of the pan as the flame licked the underside and drove the sap toward a boil. Finally the boiling began as the boys and I huddled excitedly around the pan to watch.

I tended the evaporator for two long evenings, concluding this run at 2:30am this morning. Despite the long hours, the novelty never wore off. I thoroughly enjoyed fussing over the appliance as it did its work. I occasionally adjusted the valve that allowed a trickle of sap to enter the pan to replace what had boiled away. I poked about the firebox and kept it full of wood and red hot. I skimmed and discarded the foam that accumulated on the surface of the boiling sap.

I haven’t managed to rig up the vent fan into the ceiling of the shed just yet, so the only way to allow the steam out of the building was to leave the double doors open wide. Late in the night I sat there tending the firebox and gazing absentmindedly out into the night. A spotlight on the roof of the shed highlighted the aerial dance of clouds of steam billowing skyward mixing with a blizzard of snowflakes swirling down.

When the supply of fresh sap was nearly gone I refrained from adding any more wood to the fire. I let the unit cool down and left the sap in the pan. We had probably processed about 30 gallons over those two days, but the resulting syrup wasn’t thick enough to be drawn off. Before turning in for the night, I tasted a tiny sample of the liquid and was rewarded with that familiar sweet and rich taste. Despite the work that is involved in collecting, hauling and evaporating the sap, I am eagerly looking forward to the next warm day so we can begin again.


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