Students go maple-sugaring
Maple-sugaring operation becomes perfect learning lab
Light. Stoke. Filter. Stoke. Chop. Stack. Stoke. Draw off. Filter. Finish. Filter. Ahh, sweet success!
This week the pilot year of the campus-wide maple project really hit its stride. Temperatures warmed and the days lengthened, yet nights remained below freezing, creating the necessary conditions for the maple trees to begin their spring awakening. This phenomenon is the collision of biology, physics, chemistry, natural and cultural history, making it the perfect learning lab for a small liberal arts college in Vermont, says Kristin Achilich ’05, academic coordinator for the Campus Farm and Environmental Studies instructor.
Achilich says recent years have offered mild winters. Many of the Northeast’s sugar makers saw significant production in the January and February months when, historically, Town Meeting Day was the day to tap your trees. This yielded a busy March of hauling sap to the sugarhouses nestled in the woods around the state.
After three years of tapping trees on the Farm, Achilich knew the trend well, “and that we had a viable late winter crop on campus.” She proposed the idea of exploring a small sugaring operation on campus in November with the newly formed Sustainability Committee. Receiving their support, Achilich collaborated with Brian Collier of the Saint Michael’s College Fine Arts/Art faculty, who tapped trees on main campus a few years ago as part of his Eco & Environmental Art course; biology Professor Declan McCabe who caught the sugar bug in his own backyard last year, amazed by the amount of science involved in the process; Professor Karen Popovich of Business Administration & Accounting who found a love for the process and community in a fellow faculty member home operation and sees the economic value the crop has to the state’s tourist and food economies. Richard Kujawa of Environmental Studies & Science faculty has supported the effort both as a member of the Sustainability Committee and as department chair recognizing the value in the laboratory exercise McCabe and Achilich crafted for the Environmental Science course, a requirement for all ESS majors.
The Farm Program is involved as the core student-staff collecting sap, chopping and stacking wood and using some of their tools and knowledge to produce a food safe product. The campus Environmental group Green Up has been instrumental in supporting the project as well as getting the word out to larger groups of students and creating signage for the buckets on main campus that seem to be confusing students who are not from the Northeast, where there are two season between winter and spring – sugaring and mud, as Achilich puts it — the former marked by buckets and tubes hanging from trees throughout March and April in many of their home states. The project began in earnest in February when McCabe, Popovich and Achilich’s students tapped the trees on campus and around the Farm – 19 trees altogether. Student Mercay Reuter ’19had worked with McCabe to map the maples on campus with a GPS so the team knew where to start. Peter Hope of the biology faculty assisted with proper species ID. Then, everybody waited for nearly a month through the last cold snap (they hope) of the season for the warming temperatures experienced in mid-March finally. Knowing more sap is on its way, Achilich used a window of time on Wednesday and Thursday, March 13 and 14, to boil off the sap they’d been collecting. The process takes eight to ten hours over two days. Students of the core Farm Team and Farm & Food Intensive courses got things set up Wednesday morning. By noon on Wednesday, they had their first campus boil. Environmental Ed, also taught by Achilich, worked around the evaporator writing curriculum for the project.
On Thursday, Rebecca Haslam’s Education in the 21st Century course visited the Farm to experience an outdoor classroom and how an outdoor, experiential educator goes about teaching in such a place. They participated in filtering, boiling and testing sugar concentrations in the sap throughout the morning. Haslam’s group was quickly joined by McCabe’s Environmental Science course. McCabe’s students collected sap and recorded data from the trees by the Farm. Further temperature and density evaluation of the boiling sap by the group revealed they were “close to sugar,” so the group drew off the first batch of “almost” syrup from the new evaporator. Achilich finished the syrup in the kitchen of the Pomerleau building with the help of some of her Farm students, McCabe, and many visitors drawn to the kitchen by the sweet scent of maple steam in the air.
“Now that the sap is running, we should be able to forecast boils a week or so out,” Achilich said. “Look for postings in the Farm’s weekly newsletter, the Portal and the Daily Digest. Syrup will be for sale in the Farm Stand in Alliot 204 soon!”