Missy and Rob Leab, caretakers of Ioka Vally Farm in Hancock started their sugaring operation in 1992 with just 13 taps and a kitchen stove. With 9,000 taps this year, the Leabs hope produce up to 4,000 gallons of maple syrup. Maple sugaring originated in the Native American cultures of the northeast. While the original methods of sap collection and evaporation have continued to improve over the centuries, most sugar bushes are naturally occurring.
Missy Leab spoke to me recently from Ioka Valley Farm, where she was preparing to host one of many school groups that visit the farm's sugarhouse each year during sugaring season, which usually runs from mid-February to early April.
Q: How many gallons would you say you produce in a season?
A: The optimal goal is to produce a half a gallon of maple syrup for each tap you put in. So for us that's a growing number because every year we gradually add more taps to the sugar bush. Last year we produced 2,000 gallons of maple syrup, but with 9,000 taps we're hoping to produce more than 4,000 gallons of syrup this year.
Q: Does using vacuum tubes greatly increase the amount of sap you can get from each tree?
A: Not greatly, but it does help. It helps reduce the resistance that the tree has to fight against to let the sap flow, and when you have a good vacuum system in place, the trees tend to flow a little easier on the days that you have different weather systems and those high pressures are around. And to get the maximum out of learning, the best would be to come down and see our operation (laughs).
Q: Are there other processes that you use to maximize the yield of syrup for a season?
A: It's all related to mother nature overall, on what we would get from each tree, but we try to practice the best guidelines that are known at the time, So we make sure the trees are eight inches in diameter, approximately 40 years old, before we even tap the tree, and then once they hit 16 inches, we'll place a second tap in the same tree. We do not put any more than two taps per tree.
Q: Do you do thinning of the forest to help the trees grow? A: Yes. We do a forest management-type plan. We run a very healthy, diversified forest. So we will go through and naturally thin out any unhealthy trees and try to give good spacing, yet keep a very healthy variety [of] species of trees. So we don't just keep the maple and cut everything out. We keep everything that's growing naturally, too.?
Q: How long do you expect Maple Season to last this year?
A: Mother Nature has that all under her control. On average, sugar season does last about six weeks, but again that's all Mother Nature. We collect the sap from the first thaw until the buds break on the maple trees.
Q: Do you have any advice for backyard sugarers about how they can help their trees be healthy or help maximize their yield?
A: Mostly when they do backyard sugaring, it's usually with a spout and bucket, which is fine; it does not harm the tree. Again, as we mentioned: the guidelines about waiting until it's an older and mature tree, about eight inches in diameter before you tap it - and then when you tap you look at the tree and examine the bark. And you want to tap in a healthy place and you want to move the tap from one spot to another, so you're not right near a hole that you tapped the year before. You'll be able to find last year's tap in the bark. You move away from where that is and just kind of go around the tree, and tap up and down and around and away - usually diagonally away. And then just have fun boiling it at home.
Q: How much do driveways and paved areas affect the output of maple trees?
A: The driveways themselves are not a problem. It's the salt that actually harms the roadside trees. So it's the road salt that does affect the health of the tree, and it depends how close to the roadway it is.
Q: Were a lot of the sugar bushes in New England planted for the sake of sugaring, or were they left over from the park-like atmospheres that many people in the past were trying to create?
A: To my knowledge, most of the sugar bushes that are used today are just there because nature provided them and very few were intentionally planned, because you do have to wait 40 years before you tap them. It's usually not the sort of thing someone does with the intention of continuing on. So the sugar trees that most of us use here in New England have been put here by Mother Nature.
Q: Up in Canada, where they're producing a lot of maple syrup, are those more plantation-type operations?
A: From what I know, they are a little more aggressively forested, and more heavily dominated by maple trees. They will thin out the other species a lot heavier than [we do], so they do tend to have a higher number of maple trees per acre than we would. And that's because they intentionally thin out the other species and allow the maples to grow and outnumber the others.
The sugar house at Ioka Valley Farm is open to visitors throughout the season, whenever the sap is boiling. The farm's Calf-A, which serves a variety of pancakes, waffles and French toast, is open weekends through April, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Info: iokavalley.com.