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Maple sugaring a tradition for this family since the 1800s
A Visit to Sugar Creek Maple Farm
By Elizabeth Einstein
Click Here To Read The Featured Story
Turning sap into maple syrup is a way of life for Michael and Teri Blachek. The intense and demanding process is a labor of love for these two Vestal residents and even though the syrup making process only lasts a few weeks, it is a year-round effort.
No one knows that better than Teri who grew up making syrup and has seen the enjoyment grow into an established business. Turning sap into syrup has been a part of life for her family for generations—since the 1800s on this same property. Interestingly enough, the heritage has always been passed down through the female family lineage, so it was Teri’s mother, Shirley Hickling and her husband, who taught this way of life to their children and grandchildren. When Teri met Michael Blachek, he fell in love with both the girl and the passion for creating maple syrup out of maple tree sap.
The Blachek residence is set on the hillside of 2490 Glenwood Road, Vestal. A sign, at the foot of the driveway, with all the lovely colors of fall announces that you have arrived at Sugar Creek Maple Farm. To the right of the Blachek home, you can see where the sugarbush begins and by ambling a hundred feet or so, you arrive at the sugarhouse. It is not the original sugar shack. This one was built in the 1980s and, with its own charm, retains some of the rustic character of the original. Mike and Teri have modernized the process quite a bit in the 11 years since their return from an IBM-related move to Minnesota. The return home was a joyful one for them. They always missed the Sugar Maples and looked forward to their visits back to the Vestal farm. The children’s science fair projects in Minnesota most often focused on the magical science of turning sap into syrup, attesting to this family’s passion for sugaring, as does the fact that today it is still a family business with Teri’s mom, sister, brother and sister in law, Dave and Cindy Hickling, and two handfuls of family members taking part.
Once you have found the sugar shack, nestled in the midst of hundreds of Sugar Maple trees, you can’t help but notice all the trees are tapped with little spigot-type gadgets called spiles and laced with plastic tubing lines that flow from tree to tree. All the tubing, forming a tempting cant’-catch-me maze around the trees, has taken the place of the galvanized metal buckets once anchored to the maples to catch the sap. The clear liquid flowing into the tubing is now being coaxed by a vacuum system into a large storage tank. The sap will move from there inside to the sugar house where a large metal evaporator made specifically for boiling sap, will help it condense into syrup. Goodbye lugging all those collection buckets to the sugar shed! Modern technology rules and the tubing and a suction system now makes that process a thing of the past—although the old way is still fun—and a great science lesson— for someone with just a few maple trees.
Let’s take a peek into the sugarhouse. Even on a cold day, the sugar shack is warm and steamy. An old hand-drill, used for tapping trees, hangs on a hook inside the door. Today an electric drill does the job with a lot less effort for most tree tappers. However, when school children or Scouts visit the tree farm, the hand drill comes off its hanging place and everyone gets the hand drill experience while learning how to tap a tree.
Our great grandparents may have initially placed a pot over a fire pit that was dug in the ground two or three generations ago, or in more recent history built their own above-ground fire pit out of cinder blocks or a barrel-half with metal grates over the top to hold the pots above the fire. One thing that has not changed for the Blacheks is the firing process. Here in the sugarhouse, a hefty, black, cast-iron stove heats the evaporator with a scorching-hot wood fire. Mike stops what he is doing every seven minutes to put more wood on the fire. A timer makes sure he doesn’t get distracted by visitors and forget. He opens and closes the stove door with another piece of wood. He has not yet found a pair of gloves that can withstand the high temps of the wood stove for long and he doesn’t touch the door even with regular fire gloves, let alone bare hands. The fire must be kept blazing because an uneven or weak fire will slow the evaporation process and produce darker or stronger flavored syrup. The blistering fire will keep the sap boiling, even as new sap is added.
Mike explains that a reverse osmosis process is now used on the maple farm to speed up the concentration and syrup boiling process. He says the old method was sometimes dangerous, and this system is safer and much more efficient. In yesteryear they might have kept boiling sap until it looked “just right” or they might have used the old-fashioned fudge-ready test—dropping a good dab of the syrup into a cup of cold water. If it stayed together and went to the bottom, it was ready. If it broke all apart and clouded up the water—you knew to keep on boiling. An experienced maple syrup maker might have just eyeballed the mixture to figure if it was done.
Today Mike will use a helpful little device that measures the sugar content of the sap called a refractometer. He can use this handy tool at the tap or to measure the sap while it is boiling. He explains the device tells him that sap is coming out of the trees at 1.8 percent sugar. “That means it is about a 70-1 ratio to make syrup.”
The Blacheks explain that syrup in New York state has to be between 66 and 68.5 percent sugar. “We make sure that what we are drawing off is a little less than that because when we go to bottle it, we will lose water. It steams away and gets richer.”
The refractometer will also help determine when to draw maple syrup from the boiler. If it only has one percent sugar coming out of the tree, it has quite a way to go to reach that critical 66 percent mark. Teri says that if the maple syrup does not have at least the 66 percent sugar ratio, it tends to spoil. That’s a lot of boiling and condensation done very carefully because the sap could also burn if not coaxed along correctly. “It’s really a science,” says Terri, and Mike agrees.
Sounds fairly easy, doesn’t it? But there are other factors beyond their control. Mike and Teri, even with all their knowledge and experience, will never rule the process. They can only use their knowledge and skill and hope for the best for Mother Nature is the one in control. She steps up to the plate (or should we say, bucket), and decides just when the syrup making process will begin. So, do not plan a vacation in March—or even April. You must have weather with freezing winter nights and warm spring days in order for the sap to begin to flow. “Freezing nights kind of reset the clock on drawing the sap,” says Mike. “Every time it freezes, it forces all the sap down in the roots . . . the next time it warms up the sugar goes all the way up to the tips of the tree and we gather a small percentage of that.”
When asked if a snowy winter hinders the process, he says that research actually shows that having a snow-cover throughout the winter is a good thing because there is less frost in the ground. He is already seeing the sugar production going down per tree–not sap production but sugar production, because of the weather. “The leaves produce the sugar, says Mike. “Three years ago we had a drought and the leaves turned brown and fell off early. The last two years have been so rainy that the leaves got black spots on them and they prematurely fall. All that affects the trees’ time that they can produce sugar.”
Mike compares this year with the past. “Two years ago by March 11, we had produced 113 gallons of syrup. This year by March 11, we produced 13. It looked like 2019 was going to be a terrible season but since, the weather turned around and we have produced 66 gallons of syrup in just two weeks.” He admits to being a little sleep deprived right now, but happy.
Teri points out that two-week yield is about half of the syrup they expect to make this season.
Mother Nature will also decide how much sap the sugar maker is going to get and when the sap will stop flowing. The general rule of thumb is that it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup, or think of the container in front of your plate of pancakes—It takes 10 gallons of sap to produce one quart of syrup. Teri explains that this estimate is dependent on the sugar content of the sap, too. If that is not enough, Mother Nature has also decreed that you can’t tap the same spot in the tree every year. Fortunately Mike and Teri point out that the tap only affects a very narrow band of the tree.
So once the sap is turning into syrup is Mother Nature’s part done? The sap has been boiled, filtered and condensed and has reached the 66 percent (plus) sugar content. The syrup is now dripping out of the evaporator into a bucket that Teri or Mike will hold to catch the lightly golden-colored syrup. The color of the syrup decides the flavor. When asked if they purposely boil to a certain color, they explain that nature decides the color. “We have no control over it,” says Teri who explains that while they turn out Grade A maple syrup at the farm, they have not been able to make what is called “Golden” syrup. “We take little sample bottles of each batch and some get darker and they the next bottles will be lighter again,” she says. Mike adds that if it gets really cold again, the syrup will lighten up again. “But when we start getting the days when it is getting warmer and warmer, the syrup will start getting darker.”
Teri adds that at the end of the season the syrup will be much darker and have a stronger maple flavor. The early sap looks like water but toward the end of the season it gets a milky look to it. Mike can explain how the combination of the tree, enzymes, materials and bacteria work with the sap toward the end of the season but we will leave that for the next Blachek family science fair project—or for you to learn by visiting the maple farm.
When the syrup bucket is full enough, Mike carries the bucket across the room and carefully pours the hot liquid into an antique tin cylinder that Terri’s grandparents and great grandparents used. “We still use the old -time carry cylinders but we have had them lined with stainless steel,” says Teri. She laughs as she points to the worn but sturdy and updated cylinder. “That’s been around longer than I have.”
While the syrup is still extremely hot, the bottling production will begin. A syrup hydrometer will confirm the syrup is the right temperature and density. Mike also has a tool that tells him if the syrup is golden or amber. There is a science here, too, and you can learn all about the mystery of colors and grades and the production of maple products with a visit to Sugar Creek Maple Farm. The Blacheks are great teachers and truly enjoy sharing their love of making maple syrup with others. Even when it is not the time of year for making syrup, they have come up with a teaching method so you feel like a true sugarmaker. They focus on quality and on education, and they love having visitors to their maple farm. They are members of the NYS Maple Producers and Mike is president of the Central Region, which includes the Marathon area, famous for its historic Maple Festival. Mike and Teri sell their maple products from their home. They have converted their attached garage into a bottling, showroom and teaching area. Visitors to the farm get to see a working maple sugarhouse and learn to tap a tree.
Sugar Creek Maple Farm partners with homeschoolers also participates with the Tri County Farm Trail May 4-5. The Farm Trail partnership with Cornell Cooperative extension has brought hundreds to the maple farm. During the Farm Trail weekends, there are also children’s activities and you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about making excellent maple syrup and making friends with Mother Nature.