This week’s farmer feature is a special one. Since Maple Valley is located in Cashton, WI, we are in the heart of Amish country. This means that a large number of our farmers are Amish. Their beliefs kept us from being able to use names, or take photographs of the farmers themselves. However, we were lucky enough to sit down with one of our local Amish maple syrup producers to discuss the differences between Amish and English (non-Amish) maple production. He gave us a rare glimpse into life as an Amish farmer and explained his motivation to switch to organic. Read on for more!
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What is a typical day on your farm like during maple season?
In a word: busy. We are up early, late to bed. At times we are up as early as one in the morning. Before we can go out to the woods, we have to take care of the animals; feed and milk. There are other farm chores as well. Usually these chores take 1-2 hours. The most important part of the day is a big family breakfast where the family gathers before scattering to do our tasks. After that, we head out to the woods to process syrup. At the end of the day, we take care of the animals again and work on more chores. If the sap is really flowing and we know it will be a long day in the woods, we will sometimes have one person work on only syrup while everyone else does chores.
How many acres of woods do you farm for maple?
About 180 acres. Twenty of them are mine. I rent some from my neighbor. My son-in-law has about 60 acres, and we rent another 120 from someone else. Only about 90 acres of that 120 acre parcel is tapped for maple syrup.
How much maple syrup do you produce annually?
About 1,285 gallons last year.
How long have you been making maple syrup?
I first learned by watching my grandpa make it when I was about 8 years old. We lived in Pennsylvania then. Then when I was 15 I learned more by helping a farmer with maple syrup collection. Then in 1999 I started production on my own forest.
How has the process changed since you learned?
The standards of cleanliness are higher now, especially with the inspection from the FDA. When I used to watch my grandpa as a child, there were much lower standards. He had a flat pan boiler that he set up in the chicken house. Back then, we only made small batches for ourselves and our neighbors, there was no need to sell to big cities. We deal with the public much more now. The production level is much larger now. We would make 5 to 10 gallons a day back then. Now we make 40 to 50 gallons daily. The production is also much more efficient now than it used to be. We would use buckets before, but now we use tubing. It is also much cleaner. Our equipment is better in general.
How does the Amish method of processing differ from the English method?
We don’t have electricity for boiling; we must burn wood. It requires a lot of preparation. We must have 200 pallets of wood chopped and ready for the season. We don’t use reverse osmosis machines, instead we rely only on boiling. We use a natural vacuum as we can’t use a pump. This means we have to have smaller tubes and rely on gravity. Our transportation is also different. We use horses for short distance transportation, though we can hire a truck to transport long distances.
Does anyone help you with processing?
Mostly my immediate family. I do have two married children whose families come help sometimes.
What does Organic mean to you? Why do you choose to farm organically?
I choose organic for the better priced market. I was already operating organic so I just needed to add paperwork and an inspection. The market is closer to home and more local. It also fits my production style better.
To me, organic means a traditional, healthy product to sell to the public. It also means protecting my property. This is something we care about a lot because we want our great grandchildren to be able to carry on the tradition.
What has been your greatest challenge as a maple farmer?
Marketing. Selling the syrup has not always been easy and there has not always been enough demand. The paperwork was also very difficult in the beginning. These have both gotten easier. I also feel it is harder for me than a non-organic farmer because I have to ensure that my cleaning supplies are all chemical free. I have found that the best cleaning product is elbow grease. I have been certified organic for 12 years now and these things have become less challenging over time.
What is your favorite way to eat maple syrup? Do you have a favorite recipe?
There are so many ways to enjoy maple syrup. Nothing beats a big pancake breakfast covered with the first syrup of the season. Otherwise, I really enjoy eating it with ice cream.
My family has a recipe for dark custard pie that has maple syrup in it. This is our favorite recipe. When it is put on the table, it doesn’t last long.
Which do you prefer; Dark or Amber?
It depends on what it is used for. Lighter syrup is better with pancakes. Darker is best for baking.
Anything else you would like to share?
Maple syrup is a healthy food. It is one of the best things you can consume. Tests have been done that show that no other sugar is as healthy. It has more minerals than honey.
Also, you should always put it in your coffee.