Tapping Maple Trees Using Natural Sumac Spiles, Part 1

Being a sustainable farm first, most of the projects we try are for our needs and then we think about how we can offer the product or idea to the public. Most of the time we will use it in an on-farm workshop or use it in a demonstration for a Mother Earth News Fair event. Such was the case with our Maple Syrup project.

Living on this property, I had passed two huge maple trees (one was a sugar maple, the other was not) day in and day out. I often wondered how could they be utilized — they were so big and bold and there!

I thought about making homemade maple syrup. I knew there was a lot of equipment and expense associated with this process. I also didn’t want those tap lines running all over the place. That’s when I went back to my roots. I knew maple syrup was made here (Western North Carolina) years ago, and there wasn’t all that fancy equipment that’s available today.

So, how could we do this in an economical, environmentally friendly and productive way? This is where the idea of Agri-tourism gets “sweeter”.

How to Tap Maple and Birch trees Using Natural Sumac Taps

Select the tree or trees you will be using. You can use maple, birch and others. These are the two we are familiar with. The tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter for 1 tap (spile). If the tree is larger, you can use two taps. We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now. We tap depending on our needs and market. Sometimes we tap as many as seven trees.

You might say how can I develop this into a money making project for my farm? We have taken this idea and now do on-farm workshops through our local Community College. Again, this is an idea you could use to grow Agritourism for your farm. You could host an event where you could show tapping and boiling. You could offer syrup for sale. You could offer pancake and home-made syrup breakfasts. Let your visitors help in the boiling. All kinds of ideas! You might even want to develop into a commercial product.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension Agency and find out if they have a Certified Commercial kitchen equipped with “boiling” pans. You could rent kitchen time/equipment for a small fee. If you’re looking to go commercial there are grants out there that cover Non-Traditonal Forest Products (NTFP) — of which Maple tapping is one.

Making the Taps

We learned to make the taps from the (Staghorn) Sumac shrub. For this, we reached into our Native American Heritage. You could also use elderberry — anything with a pith. You can cut these pieces (approx. 3-4 inches long) and should have an opening end about ¾ inch wide and a tapered end 3/8 inch that goes into the tree.

You can heat a metal skewer or coat hanger (we do this when we have a wood fire going) and run it through the center of the tap to remove the pith — it will smoke as it burns through because Sumac is somewhat sticky. Run through several times until you can see it opening up. When you’re finished, run water through it to make sure it has opened up all the way through — this also cleans it out. I recommend letting the taps dry out a few days before using.

How and When to Tap the Tree

The “When” of it usually depends on your location and your weather. Since we are located in Western North Carolina we usually (I said usually) start about Jan. 25th. What you want to look for is when temperatures start dropping to 32 (or below) degrees at night and day temperatures are at least 36 (and above) degrees. What happens is that this drives the “flow” like a pump!

The “how” to tap is to drill a hole. Yes, for this you will need a drill or auger. We use a drill bit size 7/16-½ inch. From the base of the tree, measure up anywhere from a few inches above ground to about 2 feet. Make sure there are no scars or growths above where you are going to drill for the taps.

People have asked can I drill in the same spot as last year? The answer is yes, but make sure it is drilled out again really good and debris cleaned out of the hole.

Drill in an upward slant about 1 ½ inches. You can mark your drill bit with tape so you’ll know when to stop. If possible, tap on the South side or where the sun hits mostly.

Gently tap the spile (tap) in the tree after drilling the hole. You can use a rubber mallet for this. Make sure the hole is cleaned out or the sap may not start flowing. Note: If tapping Birch trees the flow starts later — sometimes March. You will want to do a hot and steady boil for birch, not rolling (it can burn).

Collecting the Sap

At this point you can attach the container to the tap. Use something to tie the container to the tree if you’re using a large container (or if it tends to be windy). We save milk jugs and mayonnaise (plastic) containers to use as our collection containers. This way you are re-cycling/re-using.

At the top of your containers, cut an “X” large enough to fit over the tap and the sap will drip into the container. When the flow just starts, you may only collect a quart per day from each tree. As it progresses, you may get up to 2 gallons of sap per tree per day.

The taps must be checked at least twice daily. To collect, I usually take a large stock pot to pour the sap into and then replace the container back on the tap. Some days you may need to transport your sap in a wagon, wheel barrow or 4 wheeler. Depends on how far you have to carry your sap.

Read Part 2 to learn what you can do with that sap you’ve collected. What other markets are available. Learn how to make maple syrup easily and economically!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting “workshop stays” on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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