Six-year-old Lucas Lemos gets a taste of fresh maple sap at Brook Farm in New Paltz. Photo by Dawn M. Cservak.
Three bundled-up boys huddled in the morning mist to catch drops of sap as it trickled out of a freshly drilled 1-inch deep hole in the bark of an old maple tree. Lucas, 6, licked the sap from his finger and looked up at his father, 39-year-old Luciano Lemos of Riverdale, in shock.
“It tastes a little like syrup,” he said, smiling. “Like watered down syrup.”
A handful of folks from all over New York State traveled to Brook Farm on Saturday, February 23 to take part in a maple sugaring prep-work party. The volunteers scrubbed metal buckets for sap collecting and piled up firewood to be used later for distilling the sap. They also set up maple tree taps on the 20-acre property.
The Brook Farm Project is a nonprofit sustainable farm just west of the village of New Paltz. The farm runs on a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, where members purchase shares of the season's produce and pick up fresh crops each week from June through November.
But Saturday's gathering was all about harvesting maple syrup, and it proved to be an opportunity for experiential learning. Creek Iversen, a 46-year-old farmer who recently took over as Brook Farm's new manager, explained that it takes a lot of maple sap to make just a little bit of syrup.
“From each tree you tap,” Iversen said, “you could get about 10 gallons of sap, which will boil down to just about a quart of syrup.”
Iversen told an old Native American legend that explains why it takes so much effort to make maple syrup. A long time ago, Iversen said, people could lick sap right out of the tree and it would be as sweet and tasty as syrup.
“Since it was so easy,” he continued, “people would sit around all day drinking syrup from the maple trees.”
Legend has it that this behavior angered a spirit, who decided to pour water into the trees to weaken the sap.
Stephen Gilman, 44 of Stone Ridge, said he and his son, 6-year-old Ben, enjoy volunteer activities like this that involve some educational aspect. Gilman is the board president of UlsterCorps, a local nonprofit organization that works to connect people with volunteer opportunities.
Gilman said he and his son have a lot of maple trees on their property, so they were interested in learning something about them.
“We got several great things in one morning,” said Gilman. “We got to learn something, support a CSA farm and do something fun.”
The volunteers were encouraged to sing fun work songs, which Iversen explained were traditional on farms to keep workers’ spirits up and to keep them in rhythm when sawing wood or pulling ropes. He also said that some of the songs were meant to help lumberjacks learn the alphabet.
“A is for axe,” he sang, and he soon came to the chorus. “So merry, so merry are we. There’s no one on earth who’s as merry as we,” he belted.
Lily Bergstein, a 16-year-old from New Paltz, has been volunteering at Brook Farm since she was 11 years old. She said she enjoys volunteering at the farm because she likes singing, and she is interested in studying sustainable agriculture when she goes to college.
When it came time to tap the trees, Bergstein grabbed the drill and tried it for herself before returning inside to enjoy fresh homemade applesauce and a potluck lunch with the rest of the volunteers.
Iversen’s partner, 31-year-old Lisa Mitten of New Paltz, said that yesterday’s event is one of many to come. On the second Saturday of each month, the Brook Farm Project will host a volunteer workshop. Upcoming workshops will include a seeding party and a how-to on making natural cleaning supplies. The farm’s calendar can be found at brookfarmproject.wordpress.com.
The maple sugar taps that were installed Saturday will be collected, and the sap will be distilled into syrup on March 10 at a workshop where volunteers will learn how to make maple syrup at home.
Across the Catskills and New York State, syrupmakers are getting ready for Maple Weekend, an annual celebration of the harvest featuring events, syrup-making demonstrations and pancake breakfasts. This year, Maple Weekend will span two weekends: March 16-17 and 23-24. More than 110 New York State maple producers will host open houses similar to the ones at Brook Farm. For more information and a schedule of events, visit mapleweekend.com.
Below: Creek Iversen teaches a group of Brook Farm volunteers a lumberjack alphabet song. Video by Charlene V. Martoni.