Farming Magazine - August, 2009

SUGARING

Sap, Sun and Wind Make Maple Syrup

Using home grown energy
By Kathleen Hatt

Plumes rising from four energy-generating plants were visible within the 50-mile view from Tim Meeh and Jill McCullough’s hilltop home. When they built on their Canterbury, N.H., land in 1991—and before issues associated with climate change had risen to the fore—acid rain topped the list of environmental concerns. Caused primarily by emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere, especially from coal-fired plants, acid rain has been linked to adverse effects on the Northeast’s woodlands, and Meeh and McCullough were concerned about the health of their 50-acre maple sugarbush. So, they set about both reducing their energy consumption and using the sun and the wind to produce their own power. Now, energy generated by North Family Farm’s windmill and solar panels is banked during the winter, and in March, that banked energy runs the vacuum pump and reverse osmosis machines that produce 800 to 900 gallons a year of maple syrup.

At North Family Farm, there is a long tradition of gentle and innovative land use. At the peak of the Shaker movement in the 1850s, more than 300 people lived and worked in over 100 buildings on 3,000 acres of Canterbury Shaker Village. The North Family of Canterbury Shakers had homes and shops on what has become Meeh and McCullough’s farm. On North Family Farm’s 1,000 acres, now conserved through the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP), the Shakers tilled the fields and harnessed water power. As the Shaker community decreased in size, members of the North Family rejoined the main village. All but one of the North Family’s beautiful and efficient buildings were taken down, and the land was sold.

PHOTO BY TIM MEEH.
Steam rises from North Family Farm’s sap house.
 
A 160-foot-high windmill and a solar panel collect energy to run North Family Farm and its maple operation. A rooftop solar collector, a biodiesel-fueled car and a clothesline also minimize electricity consumption.
 
PHOTO BY KATHLEEN HATT.
Tim Meeh checks the pump house. Sap collected in the adjacent 600 and 1,000- gallon tanks is hauled to the sap house by a large diesel powered tractor.
 
PHOTO BY TIM MEEH.
About 10 percent of North Family’s maple syrup goes into maple granulated sugar, maple cream and maple candy.

Collecting Homegrown energy

Atop North Family Farm’s highest hill is the 160-foot-tall windmill that Meeh refurbished and erected in 1992. Even turning at central New Hampshire’s average windspeed of only 8.5 to 9 miles per hour, the windmill contributes about two-thirds of the 9,000 kilowatt hours the farm generates annually; the other one-third is collected by a solar panel. The refurbished panel is mounted on an automated mechanism that tracks the sun, maximizing collection potential. Meeh estimates that within two to three years of operation the solar panel collected all the energy it took to manufacture it.

McCullough and Meeh have also instituted other means of avoiding or reducing their consumption of electricity and oil. A rooftop solar panel heats water for their home, and they use a long clothesline to dry laundry. Used cooking oil from local restaurants has become the source of power for a car, but only in warm weather. They have found that biodiesel is difficult to make and use in winter because it tends to solidify.

Storing energy from the sun and wind

To power their home and farm on windless and cloudy days, Meeh and McCullough needed a way to store excess energy generated on sunny, windy days. Initially, they fed surplus energy into the commercial power grid. However, the power company objected to their backward-running electric meter. Next, they acquired 60 golf cart batteries, but they did not provide sufficient storage capacity. Therefore, Meeh and McCullough were instrumental in persuading the New Hampshire Legislature to amend a law, RSA 362-A:9, which expanded the net energy billing component of net energy metering. The law requires New Hampshire electric utility companies to accept up to 25 kilowatts of consumer-generated electricity into their lines and to make net metering available to customers. Now, Meeh and McCullough can bank North Family Farm’s excess energy, when available, and draw on it days or months later when their windmill and solar panels are not generating power. They now use the grid to their advantage while working toward a zero net carbon footprint. Over the course of a year, North Family Farm typically uses no purchased electricity. Their only public utility fee is a monthly meter charge of about $8.

Making syrup

Since 2002, sap from North Family Farm’s maple trees has run through about 20 miles of high-vacuum lines, some to 600 and 1,000-gallon collection tanks at the pump house and the rest to a 1,500-gallon tank at the sap house. Prior to installation of high-vacuum lines, North Family Farm produced about 500 gallons of syrup from 2,000 taps. Now, the farm produces 900 gallons from 1,800 taps. Taps are all 5/16-inch fitted with health spouts. Meeh learned in a Proctor Maple Research Center seminar that the sap coming through the spout is actually flowing downward. When temperatures drop below freezing, sap rises from the roots, filling the tree with sap, and when temperatures are above freezing, sap flows downward.

Boiling at night, Meeh and McCullough turn sap to syrup within 12 hours of collection. A Springtech Elite reverse osmosis machine cuts boiling time by 75 to 80 percent. The lead-free evaporator, made by G. H. Grimm Company for the Leader Evaporator Company, burns 8 to 10 cords a year, moved from an adjacent woodshed to the firebox on an overhead trolley. An airtight front and a blower make it easier to control boiling, thus reducing the possibility of burning sap. Evaporation is also more efficient and less smoky.

Syrup is sold in jugs, glass and tin log cabins. About 10 percent of syrup is used to make maple cream, maple sugar and maple candy. Most is sold on the farm, at the Concord Farmers’ Market and through selected area retail outlets.

Certified organic

For North Family Farm, the switch from conventional to organic maple production was more an increase in paperwork than a change in methods. For McCullough and Meeh, this meant more detailed records to document the chain of custody of materials, “probably a good thing,” says McCullough.

Sap is collected from North Family Farm trees, and none of it comes from trees near chemically fertilized fields. (Urea is applied to the farm’s 90 acres of hayfields, but none to within 20 feet of the fields’ edges.) No trees are rented. Food-grade diatomaceous earth is used in filters, and processing equipment is all lead free, and unsalted organic butter is used as a defoamer. Only three sticks of butter are used when producing 800 to 900 gallons of syrup. All cleaners must be certified for use in organic production, and citric acid and sodium hydroxide are used for cleaning the reverse osmosis machine.

The cost differences between producing conventionally and producing organically are primarily due to the increased costs of record-keeping, the application fee for certification by the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food and the cost of annual inspections. The only other direct cost was for new labels.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Farming. She resides in Henniker, N.H.