Farming Syrup Trees: Maple Sugaring and More

Maple sugaring is the ancient practice of tapping sugar maples for their sap before boiling it down into syrup, and it’s an excellent way to extend the forest farming season.

| September 2015

Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel demonstrate that forestry and farming are not mutually exclusive in Farming the Woods (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014). Learn how to cultivate, harvest and market high-value nontimber forest crops, from medicinal herbs and ornamentals to fruits, nuts and syrups. The following excerpt is from chapter 4, “Food from the Forest: Fruits, Nuts, and More.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Farming the Woods.

One of the oldest forms of forest farming comes in the tapping of tree sap for delicious and nutritious products that arrive as the seasons change (thaw) from winter to spring. By far the most common practice is with sugar maple, though there are several other trees that warrant attention, depending on the location of a forest farming operation.


Maple sugaring is the first act of spring for farming in the Northeast. It signals the awakening of the plant kingdom, with copious amounts of sap flowing up from the roots of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), awakening dormant buds and pushing forth flowers and eventually leaves that will be the solar array for the trees and the forest. Even though humans have harvested sap since pre-Colombian time, mainly in North America, the entire physiology of the sap run is not fully understood.

The process of collecting and boiling sap has barely changed over time. Innovations have mainly come in how sap is moved from the tree to the fire and how quickly the boil is conducted. But the main process is both simple and timeless. Native Americans used sharpened stones and later hatchets, hacking a V into the trunk of the tree and collecting sap in a wooden trough. Sap was boiled by cooking rocks in a hot fire, then placing them into the sap and constantly replacing rocks throughout the night. The natives also relied more heavily on letting sap freeze, which naturally separates water from sugar. The remaining liquid was then boiled off, but it took a lot less time than boiling alone. Some sugarmakers still take advantage of this freeze/boil strategy today.

When European settlers arrived, so did metal. Buckets were easier to make, maintain, and store. Since metal can come into contact with fire, the boiling process was revolutionized. Large cast iron kettles over fires worked but also wasted a lot of heat. Eventually metal tanks were fabricated to fit perfectly over fireboxes, which channeled fire toward the pan, thus making for a more efficient boil.

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