The door slid back, smoky vapor billowed from the shack. I walked into the warm fog and inhaled. It’s day four of the sap running, and the sugar shack is at full steam.
Farming is a pretty broad term. Beekeepers, vegetables, cattle, dairy, the list is quite diverse. Maple tree farmers are perhaps closest to fruit farmers, with short, finicky harvest seasons that trigger a mad dash of activity. We spoke with “Sugar Joe” Boisvert at the North Hadley Sugar Shack and he gave us a few facts on how to make maple syrup:
- A maple tree needs to be about 40 years old before it can start to produce sap, the diameter of the trunk needs to be about 16” to 18”
- It takes 40 gallons of sap, and 39 gallons of water, and a really hot environment to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup
- Harvest season is typically 4 to 6 weeks long but Joe worked one that was just five days
- While fall harvesting is possible, the quality of the sap isn’t as good and the iffy weather makes tapping the trees a bit of a gamble
- The equipment isn’t cheap. Joe spent $34,000 on an evaporator three years ago to speed up the process of converting sap to syrup and improve efficiencies
Organic vs. Non-Organic Maple Syrup
I always wondered about this, you don’t need to do anything to a maple tree to help it grow, especially if it takes 40 years to get to production. I asked Joe what the difference was between organic and non-organic maple syrup, he rolled his eyes, “I’m not certified organic here, but as far as I can tell the only difference is someone else paid a lot of money for a designation that’s not necessary. And people are just paying extra for a label.” So yeah, I’m not going to bother with organic maple syrup anymore, but I will focus on buying local.
The Boisvert family at the Sugar Shack optimize just about everything at the farm. During sugar season they serve breakfast and the place is jammed with lines up to an hour long (sorry no reservations, but they do take credit cards). They also have a small grocery story, sell bakery items (the cider donuts are amazing) and of course lots of different maple options including maple candy, maple sugar (try it on toast) and four different grades of maple syrup. Oh, and they have a petting zoo and 9-hole mini-golf course for the warmer months.
At the restaurant, no one minds the wait for tables because there is so much to do; wander the farm, check out some taps, hang out in the sugar shack, browse the gift shop. We realized we’d wandered off and checked back with the hostess who said, “oh, you’re ready right now,” and we plopped happily into our seats. The food is standard breakfast fare of pancakes, French toast, waffles and eggs and quite tasty. The bacon and sausage are provided from local farms and the bacon was quite good. And OMG the cider donuts, definitely get at least one, they make them in-house.
So if you live anywhere near Massachusetts it’s worth a drive to North Hadley, just one town over from UMass/Amherst. If you live closer to another friendly maple farm, definitely head out for an interesting look at a different type of farming.