Tapping the Trees: A Pilot Program in Maple Sugaring at Colby-Sawyer
In early spring, with several feet of snow still blanketing the ground in New London, sap buckets suddenly appeared on the stately maple trees that line Colby-Sawyer's front lawn. The small maple sugaring operation was part of a pilot project led by Nick Baer, a biologist and assistant professor of Natural Sciences, to engage students in an old New England tradition.
It's spring time and sugaring is a great way to get students outside and connect them to what people have done here historically, says Professor Baer. Maple sugaring brings history, tradition and science together, so why not try it at our quintessential New England college?
With a collection of new, borrowed and donated taps and buckets, Professor Baer launched the project with the help of students in his Interactions in Ecology (BIO/CES 107) class this spring.
It's a great opportunity for student to learn ecology and integrate some quantitative skills, he explains. We talked about fluid densitiesthe greater the sugar content, the denser the syrup. The sap has a certain concentration of sugar, usually 2 to 3 percent, and they had to figure out how much sap we needed to collect and boil down to produce a gallon of maple syrup with 67 percent sugar content.
The students used an instrument called a hydrometer to measure the amount of sap from each tree and its sugar content. They found natural variability from tree to tree both in the sap's sugar content and volume. Some trees are sweeter than others, says Professor Baer. It's not unusual in the early season to find some trees with a sugar content of 3 to 4 percent, but later it ranges from 2 to 2.5 percent sugar. In future years, it would be interesting to compare the sap production of trees on the front lawn, where fertilizers are used, to those of trees in Kelsey Woods.
The sap ran for a few weeks and was collected on a daily basis and then brought to a sugar shack owned by the Clough family in New London. Brothers Bill and John Clough invited the class to observe the next steps in the process of maple sugaring: the boiling down of large quantities of sap (often needing between 30 to 40 gallons, depending on the sugar content of the sap) for each gallon of maple syrup.
This was a pilot year, but in the future, we'd like to buy an evaporator and start our own 40- to 50-tap operation, which would yield about 10 to 12 gallons of maple syrup, Professor Baer says. It'd be a great learning experience for our students. I'd like it to be a student-run operation managed by faculty in various courses such as BIO/CES 107, Exploring Nature (SCI 100), and Environmental Issues (SCI 120).
In case he is able to gain funding for a maple sugaring operation on campus, Professor Baer has sought permission to transform the stone well house near the library entrance, now used for storage, into a sugar shack. We'd have to vent it and put a chimney in, but so far the campus has been supportive of the idea.
Nature as Science Lab
As a required science class, Interactions in Biology draws students of all majors who have varying degrees of interest in pursuing a major or a career in the sciences. But for many students, Professor Baer's penchant for using the outdoorsthe campus and the woods, rivers, mountains and lakes in the regionas their laboratory adds exciting and unexpected elements to the class.
Psychology major Michael Feher '10 had expected BIO/CES 107 to include more lab work, but finds he enjoys the outdoors as a natural laboratory, whether he's collecting sap on campus or exploring vernal pools in search of spring peepers and wood frogs.
Of the maple sugaring experience, Feher said he was struck by the time and labor it takes to turn sap into maple syrup. It's much more time-consuming than I thought. People put a lot of hours into the process, he says. Feher, like many of his classmates, likes the idea of expanding the pilot project into a small maple sugaring operation on campus. It'd be a good idea if students partook of it and ran it as an extracurricular activity, and if the final product were served in the dining hall. It could incorporate multiple aspects of the college.
After observing and participating in the process, Alexa Fitzgerald '08, a CES major, says the maple sugaring tradition brings people together. I've seen maple sugaring before, but I was more actively involved this time and learned about the whole process, she said. One of the things that's so neat about it is how the process unites families and communities.
Malory Newcomb '10, a New Hampshire native whose family has run a small maple sugaring operation in Newport as a hobby for several generations, was the class member most familiar with all aspects of syrup production. Her family and grandparents collect sap in buckets and through vacuum-fed plastic lines, the process in which reverse osmosis draws sap from many trees at once into one central collection area.
It's good to do it by buckets at first so you can see what individual trees are producing, says Newcomb, a Biology major. It'd be really cool to get more kids involved in the process or just to see how it works.