Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No. 12 - Oh How Sweet It Is

Carl driving the first load of buckets to the sugar bush
- by Bill Urbanski   

      “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.” – P. Connors

      On Sunday, in Northeast Pennsylvania at least, that long and bleak and dark winter finally showed signs of breaking.  Urbanski Farms is once again abuzz with life, and with temperatures above freezing, it is time to tap the trees.

       Every year at this time since 1976, the Urbanski family along with the occasional volunteer or curiosity seeker has trudged into the sugar bush to drill holes into maple trees, string lines of plastic tubing, and hang five gallon plastic buckets.

David - aka volunteer labor / curiosity seeker
       The ground is sometimes snow covered, sometimes muddy and sloppy.  The work is always tedious.  But the payoff is oh so sweet – pure Pennsylvania maple syrup.

      It all starts by tapping the trees and collecting the sap – the lifeblood of the tree.  The sap contains sugar which is a product of photosynthesis from the previous summer.  Sugar concentration in maple sap is higher than that of other trees, and nature’s special blend of amino acids gives it that distinctive flavor so many of us love.

Ben drilling a tap hole
      Sap “flow” is at its peak at this precise time of year – when temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night.  This temperature fluctuation is critical for sap flow.  It causes a change of pressure within the tree which in turn causes the flow.  By piercing the tree with a spile or tap, just inside the bark line and into the actively growing cells of the tree where the sap is present, the sap can be captured.

     Tapping produces a small wound which will heal over in 3-5 years, but ultimately does not harm the tree, provided or course the tree is healthy and mature enough.  And so the same trees can be tapped year after year.  Typically, trees need to be 10-12 inches in diameter before they are mature enough to be  tapped.  Older and larger trees can accept multiple taps.

Ed placing multiple taps on one of the larger maples on the farm
Ben cleaning a tap hole before placing the tap
       Five gallon buckets are placed below the taps, while larger containers catch the flow from tap lines – multiple trees strung together with plastic tubing.  When the buckets fill, a crew of laborers is dispatched into the sugar bush to collect.

     Larger commercial sugaring operations use vacuum systems to aid in collection, bringing the sap to massive collection tanks or even directly to the sugar house for finishing.  At Urbanski Farms, we rely on gravity and human muscle, and a few time-honored and trusted Farmall tractors.

Ben eyes up line #9, hanging and waiting for a driller
     The sap is transported to the sugar house where it is pumped into a 200 gallon tank.  From there the sap feeds directly into the evaporator, where it is boiled down into syrup.

      Our evaporator has a capacity of thirty gallons and is fueled by a wood fire burning beneath.  As water is boiled off, the specific gravity of the liquid increases and sugars are caramelized, and when the sugar solids reach 66%, it’s time to draw off the finished product.  Final filtering, bottling, and labeling are done in the farmhouse and once cooled and sealed the syrup is ready for the public.

      At Urbanski Farms, making maple syrup is a labor of love, with an emphasis on the word labor.  It is also a cross generational enterprise, with workers ranging in age from eight to eighty-two.

coils and coils of tap lines
        On weekends when the sap is flowing, when the buckets are full and when the evaporator fire burns non-stop through the night, the farm is special place to be.  More particularly, the sugar house is a special place to be.  Steam and sweet aromas fill the air, along with music, and the laughter and fellowship of family and friends.

      Stop on by if you’re in the neighborhood and see for yourself.  Syrup is available for sampling and for sale.  But be forewarned.  Bring a pair of boots.  We may just put you to work.

** Click here for a link to Channel 16's story on us last year.


  1. Oh, now I'm in the mood for some pancakes!

  2. Labor be damned, that looks like fun! Your family farm is always so interesting!