It's cold outside, but the sugarhouse is steamy and sweet smelling. Proprietors Bill and Norma Coli and their son Jubal are boiling sap, which requires concentration. Nestled on a hillside in Charlemont, Mass., Blue Heron Farm features the only commercial-scale certified organic sugarhouse in Massachusetts.
Blue Heron Farm features the only commercial-scale certified organic sugarhouse in Massachusetts.
Photos by Rebekah L. Fraser.
Sap is coming in from 3,500 taps spread out over the farm's 120 acres. All the tubing is on a vacuum system. In a year when conditions are marginal for maple production (25 at night and only 33 to 35 during the day), a vacuum system can make the difference between a decent season and a poor one.
In the next phase of its journey, the maple sap passes through a swimming pool filter containing food-grade diatomaceous earth, and is then metered so Bill and Norma know how much they're collecting in a given day. The sap then goes through an ultraviolet sterilizer into a transfer tank and drops by gravity into a stainless steel storage tank outside the sugarhouse. Next, the sap is pumped back into the sugarhouse and run through the reverse osmosis (RO) machine.
The RO uses a high-pressure pump to push the sap through a membrane whose pores are small enough to allow water molecules to pass through, but not sugar molecules. Once the sap goes through the RO, the water that is collected in another large tank is pure enough to use to clean the machine. The concentrated sap goes through another ultraviolet filter to keep it sterile, and then into another outdoor stainless steel tank before being pumped back into the evaporator for boiling.
Sap comes in from 3,500 taps spread out over the farm's 120 acres.
Despite how late in the season it is (mid-March), the Colis are still making Grade A syrup. Using a refractometer, the sugar content in the latest batch of syrup is measured. It's a little heavy at 67 degrees Brix, so a little more nearly finished syrup is drawn off and the syrup retested until the weight is where it should to be (66 degrees Brix).
Funding the operation, preserving the land
To fund the purchase of the RO, as well as other infrastructure improvements, the Colis put part of their land into a 10-year conservation restriction through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), which stipulates that the property cannot be developed during that period. In accepting the CR, the MDAR awarded the farm $40,000 with the understanding that the Colis would also invest their own capital in making the improvements they sought. Putting the land in a CR wasn't just about getting capital to improve their operation; the Colis feel strongly about protecting agricultural land and have applied for the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program. If approved, an APR will take effect after the temporary CR expires, and will put a permanent deed restriction on the farm to keep it forever in agriculture. "It's prime agricultural land, and that has value," Bill explains. "It's rare to find prime agricultural land at this elevation [1,300 to 1,500 feet above sea level]. These really good soils will easily pass a perc test, which makes them suitable to build on, and we don't want that to happen."
Their concern for the environment stretches into their business practices, as well, and inspired the couple to produce their maple syrup organically. Since the typical maple syrup farmer doesn't need chemicals to grow the trees, you may be wondering what the difference is between organic maple syrup and conventional. It's not like we're comparing the real stuff to Aunt Jemima.
The differences are fairly simple:
- During the boiling process, maple syrup can foam and spill over the sides of the evaporator. Almost finished syrup that spills over will burn on the hot evaporator parts. Many commercial producers use a synthetic chemical to knock the foam down and keep the boiling sap within the pans. Organic producers use organic canola or organic sunflower oil instead. When the syrup begins to boil over, the Colis simply touch the bubbles with a paper towel dipped in oil. It's amazing how quickly the bubbles settle down. "Old-timers would use lard, but we want to remain kosher and Halal [even through we're not kosher or Halal certified.] The process would meet kosher and Halal standards, but it's too expensive to get certification," explains Bill.
- Some farmers store the membranes from the RO machine in something similar to antifreeze. That does not happen in an organic syrup operation. In fact, Certified Organic producers use only OMRI-approved cleaners, like chlorine bleach, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hydroxide and phosphoric acid to clean the sugarhouse, pipelines and RO machines.
- Organic producers must keep stringent records about how much they produce, whether they buy sap from elsewhere and, if so, how much. Synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are prohibited from use in the woods. Bill believes a lot of people could be certified organic. "It's not that big of a deal, but you have to be willing to maintain the records and pay the fee, based on how much you sell," he reports. The fee goes to Baystate Organic Certifiers. The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA/Mass) maintains the certification standards, but the certifier is a separate entity that hires an outside person to do an annual inspection.
- The required records include: Production date, drum number, quantity packed and which size containers it went into. The Colis need to prove that they're not mixing organic and nonorganic production, and show the inspectors that their organic production balances with the number of organic-labeled jugs filled. Norma does a lot of the record keeping.
The Colis use what are called "health spouts," which create a smaller wound that the tree can seal off quicker than one created from a 7/16-inch tap.
Organic producers also adhere to fairly strict tapping guidelines that limit how many taps one can put on a tree. This is done to prevent over-tapping and extend the usable life of the farm's sugar maples. Organic guidelines also call for smaller taps than those used in conventional maple syrup production. People often use 7/16-inch spouts. The Colis use what are called "health spouts," which create a smaller wound that the tree can seal off quicker than one created from a 7/16-inch tap. The longer the tree has an open wound, the more it is susceptible to rot. Bill worked with the NOFA/Mass and Baystate Organic Certifiers to develop the standards and create these tapping guidelines.
Bill explains that in the area around each tap hole, the xylem vessels within the tree get plugged up with wild yeasts and tannins. These are the tree's natural defenses against a wound. Essentially it walls off the tap hole, so every year the farmer must look for new wood to get maximum yield. "If we see the tapholes are not closing well, we'll let a tree rest for a year. With the new health spouts, we're looking for the tapholes to close in one year, two years maximum." Signs that the tree needs to rest are unhealed tapholes and an unhealthy looking crown.
A stainless steel storage tank outside the sugarhouse.
A new development recently entered the market. The check valve adapter is a spout that allows flow in only one direction. There's a little movable ball within the check valve adapter that allows sap to flow out of the taphole, but not back in. Bill is excited about the new development because of its potential to protect his trees even more than the methods he's been using, while also allowing him to extend his season. The check valve adapter prevents the tree from closing off the wound as soon as it normally would, but it doesn't harm the tree, so it gives a maple producer a longer season than the traditional health spouts.
Organic standards for maple syrup packaging require producers to use new food-grade packaging. The Colis package their product in plastic jugs. They were one of the early adopters of the private label syrup jug, and were the first commercial sugar maple business in Massachusetts to put UPC codes on their private label jugs.
Bill explains that the jugs are made from a food-grade, recyclable plastic that is free of phthalates and Bisphenol A. "I would have a real problem using these containers if they had phthalates, which mimic human estrogen and are known to cause cancer. The chemicals of concern cannot migrate from this plastic, because the resin does not contain them," says, Bill, who is also a scientist with UMass Amherst. Norma points out that plastic is easier to handle than glass and ships better. It's not inexpensive, but it is slightly less expensive than glass.
2011: A banner year for syrup
Three nights of temps in the mid to low 20s gave Blue Heron another run of sap in early April. "It took three days of small runs to accumulate enough sap to justify turning on the RO," says Bill, "But we ended up making 28 more gallons of good tasting Grade A Dark Amber syrup on April 9. That is the latest we have ever boiled in the 35 years we've been here."
Rebekah L Fraser is a frequent contributor to Farming, and author of New England Farm Tours, an iPhone and iPad app tour guide published by Sutro Media.