It’s not every day you come across Tennessee maple syrup — let alone walnut syrup. And in late January, the trees were ripe for tapping as the days were warm and the nights below freezing.
Tyler Burggraf, who, in the fall, scouted the 40 or so trees we would be tapping, had been waiting for this all winter. His lines were strung out across the woods like a maze, sloping downhill some 500 feet.
“Ever had walnut syrup before?” he asked shortly after I met him. Of course I hadn’t, let alone heard of it. After trying it, though, I was sold — it’s a delicious syrup made from black walnut trees, producing a yellow-tinted product that, to me, is sweeter than maple.
Tyler’s been tapping trees for a few years on his parent’s land near Tazewell, Tennessee, just south of the Virginia line. A few of the old timers in the area told him he was crazy — he’d never get enough sap out of those trees, they said. But, I could clearly see who was on the right side of that exchange by glancing at the amber and golden mason jars full of syrup that lined Tyler’s kitchen counter.
My partner, Brittney Willis, and I were set to stay for a week with Tyler and the rest of the Burggraf’s: Henry, Peggy and Tanner. They’re the epitome of nice, Southern folks and have a quaint homestead, nestled into a part of the country ripe with a pastoral aura — chickens, barns and old houses dot the landscape among the gently rolling foothills of the Appalachians. As I looked at the place and soaked it all in, it was easy to remember why Brittney and I were there.
I had always cherished the feeling of harvesting my own food — whether that was from the small garden at my parents’ home or from the lush backwoods and bayous of south Louisiana, where I spent most of my life. It wasn’t until last year, while I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, working a desk job I didn’t particularly care for, that I seriously considered doing so full time.
After reading authors like Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and Mark Sundeen, I found myself trying harder to live a simpler and healthier life rooted in good food. It was easy to see I wouldn’t get where I wanted to be without making a radical change.
After I met Brittney, a float nurse who was also running a produce truck that serviced food-insecure areas in Nashville, our plan morphed pretty quickly. Within a matter of months, we had nailed down a life we wanted to build together. One where we had a small, urban farm, with chickens and rabbits; a compositing service that’s served by bikes to reduce our carbon foot print and provide the community with chemical-free fertilizer; and a community garden to teach others about permaculture and how food impacts your health. Our ideas flowed faster than we could articulate them, at times. But, the vision became clear — and Medium Okra Farm was born.
Being first generation farmers with rudimentary experience, we needed knowledge from folks steeped in the culture. Brittney suggested that we volunteer our way across the western U.S. (where we’d like to settle), as well as Canada, through Workaway, a website that connects people with farms, exchanging work for room and board. We procured a van equipped with a bed, packed everything we’d need for a year and left Nashville without looking back.
The farms we’ll be visiting are those that are engaged in permaculture and a few things we’re interested in, like bees, medicinal herbs and alternative building structures. We’ve been calling it a year-long apprenticeship, of sorts, so that we may find what we’re passionate about and, most importantly, how to make all of this coalesce on a working farm someday.
Brittney and I are a part of a growing movement in the country, one where college educated adults (ages 25-34) are ditching corporate gigs and deciding to start a new life as farmers. For the first time in quite a while, the number of these younger farmers grew, at a rate of 2.2 percent from 2007 to 2012. While those figures may not seem like much, it's a testament to the growing number of millennials in the U.S. who are choosing to grow local food over supporting industrial agriculture.
Tyler’s instructions were brief but detailed. “Drill in the tree at an angle, about an inch or so, then gently hammer the tap,” he told us on our first morning as we gathered around a maple, when the sun was high enough to warm the trees and get the sap flowing. “When you hear a thud, that means it’s in.” We tapped both sides of the tree and, from there, tubing carried the sap to a larger hose that switch-backed down the hill.
A few more tips he offered ensured we tapped the trees in the right place. For instance, it’s best to tap on a side of the tree with a large, main branch, which sends the sap down. However, if there’s a dead stump, avoid that area for a different side of the tree. Larger trees offer the most sap, and younger, smaller ones should be left to grow to be utilized in the future.
The routine wasn’t hard to master and, in no time, we had tapped about two dozen maple trees — in addition to a few more walnuts farther down the hill. That night we gathered in the barn where the sap awaited. It appears much like water that’s clear but with a slightly sweet flavor.
For every 40 gallons of sap, you’ll get about one gallon of syrup. We didn’t have quite that much on our first day, but we had roughly 20 gallons — pretty respectable for the beginning of the season.
The process from there was pretty simple. We double-filtered the sap, then boiled it down until we could transfer it into a smaller pot inside. The same process applied to the five or so gallons of walnut sap we collected. At that point, the clear liquid had transformed to a deep amber indicative of maple syrup. Tyler picked up a refractometer, much like miniature a telescope, which he uses to test the sugar content.
“You want around 66 brix,” he instructed. “That’s the ideal amount for maple syrup for consistency and flavor.” He would carefully dab a drop on the refractometer, until it reached the right amount. The only thing left was a taste test, pairing fresh waffles with homegrown, Tennessee maple and walnut syrup — a lesser-known Southern delicacy that Brittney and I won’t soon forget.
Photos by Jonathan Olivier
Jonathan Olivier is traveling throughout 2018 with his partner, Brittney, with the goal of learning everything they can about farming. He is a freelance journalist, having covered the environment and outdoors for Outside, Backpacker, REI, Louisiana Sportsman, and a host of other publications. In 2016, he published his debut novel, Between the Levees. Follow Jonathan on his website and Instagram.
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