I was in Ohio this week, and the landscape was scattered with hickory and maple trees. Look closely and you can see plastic bags fluttering alongside some of the sugar maples. They've been tapped for their sweet sap!
A local friend introduced me to Ralph J. Rice, a third-generation maple syrup maker in Northeast Ohio's Ashtabula County. Right now, he has 935 taps spread out across the 35 acres of woodland on his farm.
He uses draft horses to carry the sap-filled bags – more than 100 gallons at a time – out of the woods and into the sugar house, where he cooks it into scrumptious syrup.
Taking some of the sap from a sugar maple doesn't hurt the tree, Rice said. Hundreds of years of maple syrup production has proven that the trees live long, healthy lives despite the loss of sap. And, as Rice showed me on one of his trees, the tap hole heals over within a year.
Spring is the time to start tapping trees. As temperatures start to warm in March and April, the sap starts moving up the tree trunk. You can keep tapping the tree sap later in the spring, Rice said, but it doesn't taste as good.
The sustainability of tapping trees for their sap depends in part on the size of the tree and the number of taps in it, Rice said. On average, one taphole yields 5 to 15 gallons of sap a year. A tree with a 10-inch diameter is big enough to sustain one tap, he said. You can add a second tap to a tree with a 20-inch diameter, and a third to trees over 24 inches wide. But no tree can sustain more than three taps.
Once the sap is in the sugarhouse, Rice essentially distills it through a heating process fueled by wood from his woodlot. It takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.
Rice's father and grandfather both made syrup on a farm in the same county; but the farm changed hands in a divorce so Rice had to start his own.
"I always knew this was something I wanted to do," he said. "Now I have kids of my own who want to take it over and grandkids toddling around who like it too."
He's thinned some non-maple trees from the woodlot to give the young maples more room to grow.
"I might never get to tap these trees," he said, "but they'll be here for future generations."