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  (Portage, Michigan)
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2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

I was sad when I realized that the best thing for our family was the discontinuance of our CSA. All the same, it was a peace-filled realization.

However…

I recently had an experience that was easily the saddest, most disheartening experience of my homesteading life to date. Imagine my dismay when – three days before I was to process it – I discovered that 50 gallons of pure maple sap stored in my garage was… spoiled. Sour. Unusable for syrup.

Saddest. Moment. Ever.

All of my sweet (literally) self-sufficient dreams drowned in a 5-gallon food-grade bucket of sour-smelling, cloudy liquid. Last year we had syrup from our sap but processed by Papa. This year I was really looking forward to the self-affirming experience of collecting and processing my own syrup.

Fortunately, Papa always has an abundance of syrup (he still has a ton left over from two years ago) so hopefully he’ll pity us enough to donate this year’s syrup.

Meanwhile, the thought of letting 50 gallons of maple sap go to waste made me want to vomit. I came inside… sat with my head in my hands and thought…

Maybe I could turn it into vinegar?

After an evening of frantic internet research, that’s just what I did. (Or, at least, what I made a plan to do.) Although the web is light on details about making maple vinegar, I did find enough direction to develop a plan for several different approaches. In a nutshell, they include…

Method 1: Diluted maple syrup mixed with wine-making yeast

Method 2: Maple sap with a Mother of Vinegar added

Method 3: Au natural (nothing added)

Because Method 1 involves diluted maple syrup, I decided to go ahead and process some of our sour sap all the way down to syrup. That way I could still experience (and show you) the process. What I didn’t expect is that as we got started, the batch really didn’t look (or smell) that bad. Coincidentally, Papa and I decided to process all but the 3 cloudiest buckets (15 gallons) down to maple syrup. The result is a very dark syrup that initially tastes just fine but leaves a strange after-taste. I’ve not yet dared to try it on pancakes.

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I promise I’ll share all the details of my maple vinegar-making plan with you in a future post. Meanwhile, this post is dedicated to explaining and showing the process of taking sap to syrup.

Processing Maple Syrup 2014

As a refresher, maple sap becomes syrup when you remove the high water content, leaving behind the concentrated sugary content. The most popular way to do this is by boiling the sap to evaporate the water. The sugar content of sap varies based on many factors, but in general it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. For the homesteading maple syrup maker, a backyard evaporator is used to boil off all of that water. The evaporator can be as simple as a gas grill or it can take on a much more complicated form. For all the finer details on how an evaporator should function and how you can make one (along with how-to videos for several options) check out this post.

I was fortunate to be able to use Papa’s evaporator, featured in a post from 2013 that you can find here.

Click here for the step-by-step process, along with pictures and links to resources.

 
 

Gatlinburg Trip & Farm Updates

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It appears that spring has finally sprung in Southwest Michigan! There’s still a cool nip in the windy air, but the sun is shining and temperatures are reaching up into the sixties at midday. It’s a welcome sight!

I’m so glad that things have warmed up around here because after returning from a trip to sunny, spring-has-sprung Tennessee, I don’t think my heart could have handled super-cold and snow. We had a fabulous time on our family vacation to Gatlinburg and the highlight was our time spent enjoying nature at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hiked a couple of relatively easy trails (with an eight-year-old and two-year-old in tow) to see some gorgeous waterfalls and scenic forests. I’ve been studying permaculture a lot lately so I couldn’t help but make observations about the climates and microclimates we encountered. (Did I just hear you snore? Hang in there, I’m not going to get too scientific on you!) It was a pleasure to be there just at the cusp of spring because we were able to watch buds and leaves and flowers unfold as the week went on.

I felt like I had a front-row seat to watching the mountains wake up from a winter nap. What a joy to watch the ground go from nothing but moss and leaves to a sea dotted with opening spring flowers. And to see trees transform from barren sticks to branches of blossoms and tiny green, budding leaves. The intermittent rain showers came at just the right time so as to avoid ruining our plans while simultaneously stocking up the mountain streams for fantastic, fast-flowing water shows. I loved it!

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Another thing I enjoyed was encountering familiar or edible plants in the wild. I guess it’s a nerdy gardener thing, but it was fun for me to find a plant and know just by looking at it that it must be related to a strawberry, or a carrot or a sweet violet. I wished I’d remembered to take pictures of all these sightings, but here are a couple I did manage to snap.

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What a bright, sunny dandelion growing amidst the rocks!
Did you know that all parts of the dandelion are edible?

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We saw lots of wild onions throughout the forest.

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These were some of the largest onions I saw. I hope my leeks can rival these!

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I don’t know if these are violets or if they are edible, but they were so beautiful and they reminded me of the sweet violets that should be popping up at our farm sometime soon!

We enjoyed several of the area attractions, including Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze, the shops in downtown Gatlinburg, Wild Bear Falls Waterpark, Forbidden Caverns and the Arts & Crafts District near Gatlinburg. Even with all there was to do in the area, one of our favorite experiences was simply relaxing at our very private cabin.

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Staying here was an enlightening experience for us. It inspired us to live more simply. To be more specific, we realized that we could thoroughly enjoy ourselves with minimal “stuff.” Packing a Toyota Camry with everything four people need for a week (including a toddler’s stroller, pack-n-play and other bulky items) meant being nominal and creative about what we brought along. Our cabin had everything we needed, plus a few extras (like board games). We didn’t and don’t need the gobs of “stuff” we have at our home. Maybe this seems strange or like a common sense revelation I should have had years ago, but it was liberating to not have to pick up mountains of toys or wash billions of dishes or sort bundles of magazines and papers. On our first full day back from the trip, we started purging. I can’t wait to share that journey with you as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, Back at the Farm

Despite our absence, the farm chugged along. Fortunately our micro-farm means micro-sized-farm-sitter-duties. I’m so thankful that Papa (my father-in-law) was able and willing to feed our chickens, gather eggs, care for our bunny, gather our maple sap, take care of our dogs and miscellaneous other things while we were gone.

Maple Syrup Update

By the time we returned, our maple sap count had risen to just under 60 gallons. That’s about half of what I was hoping for… apparently my hopes were set a bit high. That makes sense since 20 gallons per tree in a season is pushing the upper end of the scale and we only have four trees. With all of the tiny-thaw/long-freeze weather we had this March, there were very few days where sap was actually running at our house. Oh well… I may not have a ton of maple syrup, but I’m still pleased to be producing my own!

The current plan is to utilize Papa’s evaporator early this next week to process our liquid gold pronto. The weather is warming up and since sap can spoil at warm temperatures, I need to get to it as soon as possible. Unfortunately I don’t have space to refrigerate 12 five-gallon buckets, so they’re hanging out in the shady, cool garage for now. Because I love a good experiment, and I want some insurance against spoiled sap, I am also considering an experiment: Freezing the sap. There’s a generally held principle that the water in sap freezes but the sugar content does not. When you freeze a container of sap, supposedly the ice can be discarded because it has no (or minimal) sugar content and would just have to be boiled off in the evaporation process anyway. If this is true, freezing sap, discarding the ice and then boiling what’s left should significantly reduce the amount of fuel and time needed to make syrup. I’m going to give it a whirl – but only with a portion of our supply. I love a good experiment, but I love maple syrup more!

Seedlings Update

While we were gone I also did a hands-off experiment. The moon-favorable time to plant many of our seeds (such as broccoli, kale, lettuce and chard) would have expired by the time we returned home from vacation. I didn’t want to wait a full month before starting these seeds so I started them the night before we left. Most seeds take 3-5 days to germinate any way so I knew my seedlings would be very small by the time I returned, if they existed at all. I planted my seeds in trays of garden soil and made sure they were very (very) moist. Then in each tray I created a make-shift olla using a small clay pot. I placed the pot down into the soil and filled it with water. Because the soil around it was already saturated, the pot did not leak water from the hole or the sides. Like with real ollas, the idea here is that as the moisture level in the surrounding soil is reduced, the moisture inside the terra cotta pot (or through the hole in the bottom in this case) will be wicked out by the soil and used by the plants. I used ollas both for my newly-planted seedlings and for existing green babies that needed to survive a week without me.

I’m pleased to report that everything survived! A couple of newly planted seeds had not yet germinated by the time we arrived home. Hopefully they will emerge soon and are just slow (perhaps not enough warmth?) and not drowned.

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This tiny clay pot worked perfectly as a mini olla to keep our seedlings watered while we were on vacation.

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The mini-olla also worked to water emerging seedlings that were germinating while we were away.

I was also pleased to see that our gingerroot also decided to start sprouting while we were away!

Chitting (Sprouting) Potatoes

The last little update I want to share with you has to do with our potato seeds. While we were away I laid the seed potatoes out in trays beneath a semi-sunny window. (I was fearful that if I left them in some of the sunniest locations the dogs would eat them. This window was in a closed bedroom.) The ideas behind chitting potatoes is that exposure to sunlight causes them to begin sprouting and that pre-planting sprouting results in a faster harvest. I had a good success with the process last year.

Here’s what he potatoes looked like when we left. (Pardon the poor lighting… it was very early in the morning).

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Here are our seed potatoes at the beginning of the chitting (sprouting) process.

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We left them near a sunny window while we were gone on vacation.

And here’s what they looked like when we returned.

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These are Desiree Red seed potatoes from Seed Savers Exchange.

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These red (new) potatoes didn’t sprout as much as I’d hoped, but they did better than the yellow potatoes.

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These German Butterball seed potatoes from Seed Savers Exchange hardly sprouted at all while we were gone!

They didn’t progress along as far as I was hoping, but this is still good. I gave them a couple more days of sunlight before planting them.

Now that we’re home and the weather is warm, I’m up to my eyeballs in chores and impending projects. There’s so much to share, but I’ve already blathered on enough for one post. Stay tuned – there’s more coming soon!

 
 

2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 1

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It’s maple sugarin’ season in Michigan! If I had been on my toes I would have tapped my trees on Thursday, March 6 as the weather conditions were just right for running sap – cold nights and above-freezing, sunny days. But alas, I’m a busy mom and I didn’t get to it until Tuesday, March 11. It was a beautiful, relatively warm, sunny day… and then that evening our lovely Michigan weather crashed from 40 degrees and sun to windchills below zero. (Hey, Old Man Winter – take your prozac, ok!?) Today the temperature has climbed to 22 degrees and tomorrow’s forecast currently calls for a high near 50. All of this up and down cold creates some serious weather-whiplash for us humans, butt the cold nights and warm days are great weather for collecting maple sap.

I won’t go into a ton of detail about how, when and why to collect maple sap because I wrote a pretty comprehensive post about it last year. (Click here to check it out!). This year I just wanted to give you quick update and to let you know that we’re trying something a wee bit different.

Click here to read the rest of this article.
 
 

Sweet Violet Velly (Jelly)

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In the year or so that I’ve been blogging I haven’t spent much time talking about foraging although it’s a topic that interests me greatly. In general, foraging (as it pertains to food) is the act of making use of (exploiting) naturally occurring (wild) resources. Foods found while foraging are often things that used to be eaten many generations ago but have somehow been forgotten in the area of microwave meals and processed foods. A forager is could be described as a cross between an opportunist with a foodie! I’ve very pleased that today we get to talk about foraging… and the surprisingly sweet results of this week’s foraging adventure.

It all started when I noticed a Facebook friend talking about making jelly from sweet violets. The cute little purple flowers on her page looked an awful lot like the cute little purple flowers I spy all over the “Woods” (wooded section of our 1 acre property) each spring. After close examination I determined that they are in fact violets – cool! After even more digging, I discovered that both violet flowers and leaves are edible and the entire plant has health benefits. To name a few, violets can be used as:

  • A sedative, to help you relax or sleep
  • A laxative
  • A diuretics to address high blood pressure
  • A relief for coughing
  • An anti-inflammatory and painkiller, especially for joint pain
  • A treatment for various skin diseases
  • A source of antioxidants, especially beta carotene and vitamin C (140 ml of violet leaves ahs the same amount of vitamin C as four oranges!)

Even with all of those exemplary health benefits to boast, do you want to know the best part about violets? They are growing – uncultivated and for free – in my backyard. No work. Lots of benefits. Win.

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So what’s a girl to do with these edible flowers? My initial introduction to the edible nature of violets came via a Facebook post about violet velly (jelly) so I determined that would be the best place to start. (Plus, I’ve never made jelly before so I was looking forward to adding that learning experience to my endeavor.) But in the process of all my violet research, I uncovered several other ways to make use of this free foraging resource. This list is not all-inclusive, but here are some other ways I’m hoping to experiment with violet blooms and leaves:

I’m not sure how much longer these pretty petals will last so I intend to harvest as many blossoms and leaves as I can before the week is over. Whatever I don’t have time to use fresh I’ll plan to dehydrate for future use. Meanwhile, take a gander at the violet velly I made yesterday – my very first batch of jelly ever! Ain’t it perty? We tried some this morning and Ryan and I both agreed that it’s quite tasty.

sweet violet velly jelly

Violet Velly (Jelly) – Two 12 oz Jars

Want to make your own? Here’s the recipe I followed (slightly modified) which I found here thanks to the folks here.

Violet Velly

Yield: 4 ½ cup jars or 2 12 oz jars

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups pesticide-free fresh violet flower petals
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 package pectin (1.75 oz)
  •  2 cups sugar

Directions:

1. Rinse and drain flower petals. Place in heat-proof glass bowl. Bring water to a boil and pour over petals. Cover and allow to steep overnight, or for up to 24 hours.

2. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve: use a spoon to press all the liquid from the plant material (compost or discard the flowers when you’re through). The liquid will have a greenish or blueish tint at this point. You can refrigerate it for up to 24 hours.

3. Combine strained liquid with lemon juice in the saucepan. It will turn purple. Whisk in the pectin and the sugar. Bring to a full rolling boil, whisking to ensure the sugar and pectin dissolve thoroughly, then turn heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes (or until the jelly has reduced a bit and thickened).

4. Skim off any foam and then ladle into your clean, hot and sterile jars, leaving 1/8? head space. Wipe lids and screw on the the rings, then process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes.

5. Remove jars and allow to cool for 24 hours.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

Homemade Pure Maple Syrup Part 2

Last week I shared that we’ve been collecting maple sap for making our own maple syrup. It has been a great family-time endeavor and the first step – collecting maple sap – couldn’t be simpler. To learn how to collect your own maple sap, click here.

Our first batch of sap (10 gallons) has already been turned into 3 pints of golden, delicious maple syrup. (And a pint of that maple syrup has already found its way into a batch of oatmeal cookies!)

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The first batch of syrup from Arcadia Farms!

From my perspective, the second part of the process (boiling sap to convert it to maple syrup) has been pretty easy too. That’s because my father-in-law (hereafter lovingly referred to as “Papa”) did all the work. This is Papa’s third year making homemade maple syrup and he’s figure out a thing or two about how to make it work. You can learn from his experience (along with other tidbits I’ve gathered from the web and a book called Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide by Rink Mann) to discover how to make your own syrup too.

To start, I’d like to give you a general overview of how the sap-to-syrup process works. Put simply, you need to:

  1. Collect sap from maple trees.
  2. Boil sap so that the water evaporates and the sugary syrup remains.

Easy-peasy, right? Essentially, it is. But there are nuances to boiling sap that are critical to understand if you’re going to end up with maple syrup instead of a gooey, burned mess. As Rink Mann puts it:

“the process involves boiling the sap so that the water in the sap evaporates off in the form of steam, leaving the sugar behind in the boiling pan. Sounds simple, doesn’t it, and it really is, although at certain stages of the process , particularly as you’re getting your brew close to being syrup, there can be terrifying moments. Remember, we’re talking about starting with, say, 33 gallons of sap and ending with 1 gallon of syrup.”

 Click here for the rest of this article, which includes the following info:

 
 

Homemade Pure Maple Syrup

drilling holes for maple sap syrup tapMy father-in-law (hereafter lovingly referred to as “Papa”) is currently in his third year of making homemade maple syrup from his own trees. Last year he made an abundance and we’ve been blessed with as much free, pure maple syrup as our little pancakes hearts can handle. I’ve been eager to try making our own syrup ever since it dawned on me that we have some maple trees of our own (four of them, in fact). I’m especially interested in making my own maple sugar. Since this is my first year and I’m getting a late start, I doubt I’ll end up with a large volume of finished product. But just like everything else, you’ve got to start somewhere! I’m hoping I’ll get enough experience this year to be able to make a decent supply (maybe a whole year’s worth?) of maple sugar next year. Next year maybe I’ll even wear this t-shirt while I work.

Why would I want to make that much maple sugar? Namely because I think it would be a fabulous, “healthier” alternative to highly-processed, non-local cane sugar. Pure maple syrup is also way better than a bottle of anything Aunt Jemima can cook up. Have you ever read the label on store-bought syrup? Here’s the label from a bottle I found lingering in the disarray of our fridge (soon to meet its destiny in the garbage can):

Take a peak at what's in store-bought syrup.

Take a peak at what’s in store-bought syrup.

Boo. My maple syrup will contain only two ingredients: Maple syrup and love.

So far, maple sugarin’ (<– said with my best hick accent) has been pretty easy. Here’s the skinny on what we’ve done so far and how you can make your own pure maple syrup too!

How to Make Maple Syrup and Sugar

The basic concept of making maple syrup is easy. First, you gather sap from maple trees. Next, you boil the sap down until the water evaporates and the sugary-sweet syrup remains. To make maple sugar, you continue to boil the syrup until it crystallizes. The general rule is that you’ll need about 40 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup. That 1 gallon of syrup will net you about 8 pounds of sugar. Of course there are details and nuances to the process that you’ll need to know, but that’s the process in a nutshell.

Papa lent me a book called Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide (by Rink Mann) to help me get started. The book is short, to-the-point and a good practical guide. I spent about 15 minutes reading before our tree-tapping adventure yesterday and felt fully equipped. Most of the information I’m going to share with you in the rest of this post either came from Papa’s advice or this book.

Click here to read the rest of this article, which includes the following headings:

 
 
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