March 21, 2011
Maple season on tap
Homer farm plays host to annual Maple Weekend fanfare
HOMER — Saturday was cold and blustery, not a day when the sap was running hard in Dave and Elizabeth Metzger’s maple trees at Sugar Ridge Farms.
But this has been a productive spring so far for maple syrup producers.
“We had a couple small runs at the end of February, and it’s been taking off,” Dave Metzger said as he stood in his sugar shack Saturday on the other side of the pond behind Dave’s Archery, his store on Route 11 that sells hunting, archery and maple production supplies. “Warm days, cold nights this week — it keeps the sap running, day and night.”
Sugar Ridge Farms produces about 1,000 gallons of maple syrup per season. The Metzgers collect sap tapped from 2,200 spouts in maple trees covering a steep hillside that rises above the sugar shack.
They were Cortland County’s hosts for Maple Weekend, the annual promotion by the New York Maple Producers Association in which maple syrup producers open their sugar shacks to the public. Sugar Ridge Farms will be open this Saturday and Sunday as well, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., for another Maple Weekend.
Each rural county has at least one maple syrup producer who will host visitors.
The couple demonstrated how syrup is made on both days.
As the weekend started, Sugar Ridge had produced 325 gallons of syrup, most of it lighter colored syrup that is common for the early season and is more expensive.
The season stretches from the beginning of February into early April in more productive years, Metzger said.
Sunday was warmer and the sap flowed, as temperatures reached around 40 degrees by 4 p.m. During the afternoon, visitors crowded the Metzgers’ sugar shack to watch the couple boil sap in two large tanks, eliminating water and leaving sugar content.
Last spring was not one of those productive years, as the Metzgers produced only about 500 gallons.
The Metzgers use about 90 percent of the sap gathered by their taps to make syrup. The other 10 percent is converted into candy, cream and cotton candy, all of which require longer hours of boiling.
It takes 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The sap is only 2 percent sugar when it comes from the tree.
Sap flows from the taps into tubes, as a clear liquid without color. The tubes feed into hoses that bring the sap down the hill to three stainless steel storage tanks. From there, the sap flows into a reverse osmosis machine, which can hold 500 gallons of sap and removes three-quarters of the water the sap contains.
“That machine saves me a lot of effort,” Metzger said. “I need less oil fire to evaporate the water, which saves fuel costs.”
He said that technology has been around for at least 30 years. His machines are made by Lapierre Equipment, a Quebec-based company.
The Metzgers have 112 acres on the hill, up to Maxson Road. They visit the taps and hoses in the forest on snowmobiles until the snow melts.
The family settled on Route 11 about 11 years ago, moving from the Lake George area. Besides the store and the maple syrup operation, they produce honey and, during hunting season, process deer carcasses.
“So we’re busy all year long,” Dave Metzger said.
Dave Metzger said he learned to make maple syrup from his father, Charles, who had several hundred taps in Thurman, northwest of Warrensburg in Warren County.
The Metzgers moved to Homer after Dave’s livelihood, building homes, slowed down and the couple decided they liked Cortland County.
Dave Metzger started with 400 taps the first year in Homer and kept adding more. Trees need to be at least 20 years old to be suitable; a few bigger trees have more than one tap. The family plans to add another 800 taps for next year, bringing the total to 3,000.
Gravity causes sap to run from the tree’s trunk into a tube, then a vacuum pulls sap through hoses from the sugar bush, which is the term for a stand of maple trees.
The sugar shack has two tanks where sap is held to be cooked. One tank is 2 feet by 5 feet and the other is 2 feet by 3 feet.
The Metzgers’ children Jessica, 28, and Charlie, 21, help with the operation, and Charlie will be taking over from his parents.
They sell most of their syrup at festivals, notably Cortland’s Pumpkinfest.
Dave Metzger said his store sells bottles and other supplies to the many people who produce syrup as a hobby, not so much as a livelihood.
“A lot of people do it,” he said. “Some have a couple dozen taps. They make syrup for themselves and maybe give away some as a gift.”
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