Mother Nature not very kind to syrup producers this year

Deloris Smith hangs a 10-quart metal bucket on a spigot that has been freshly driven into the side of a maple tree on Tuesday, Feb. 16. When the sap begins to run, the trees can fill the bucket, sometimes spilling over with the sweet, watery substance, which will be boiled down to make syrup.
Deloris Smith hangs a 10-quart metal bucket on a spigot that has been freshly driven into the side of a maple tree on Tuesday, Feb. 16. When the sap begins to run, the trees can fill the bucket, sometimes spilling over with the sweet, watery substance, which will be boiled down to make syrup. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Feb. 29, 2016.

Mother Nature has been kind to nearly everyone in Huntington County this year — except John and Deloris Smith.

The couple depends on the usually below-freezing wintry weather for their one and only crop, maple syrup.

But finally, some cold temperatures did hit local “fields” — comprised of wooded stands of huge maple trees — prompting the sap to rise. The Smiths were there to harvest it.

John Smith has been working the trees and making syrup ever since he can remember — he’s the third generation to live in the big brick house on his 11-acre property, located near CR 400N, and the third generation to make syrup out of the maple trees in his woods.

Back in the day, the property contained an outdoor “sugar camp” built by John’s grandfather. All the syrup gathering and boiling was done outside using cast iron kettles heated by wood fires.

“That’s how my grandfather started,” he remembers. “In ’26 he went to Lagro in a horse and buggy, and got his first evaporator, and put it out here. From then to ’96, there was no lights, no electricity, no nothing. They didn’t use anything but candlelight.”

Later, the Smith family abandoned tapping the trees and the syrup-making process. But in 2000, John and a cousin, Steve Thomas, decided they wanted to start it back up, modernizing the process somewhat, but preserving the basic, time-tested steps to create pure maple syrup.

They harvest five acres of maple trees on the Smiths’ property, then tap two other stands that are privately owned by others, having obtained permission to squeeze the sap out of the trees — about 450 trees between the three properties, John guesses.

“About any kind of maple tree will work,” he says.

After a short week of below freezing temperatures, the syrup crew — comprised of the Smiths and whoever else they can muster to help them — began to tap the trees. They started Tuesday, Feb. 16, with John, using a cordless drill, putting a 1 1/2 inch hole in each tree, drilling into the east, south or west sides of each trunk. Bigger trunks may get two or three taps. Next, Deloris and friends hammered metal spigots into the holes and hung galvanized 10-quart buckets on the attached hooks. Then they waited for the weather to warm up.

“I can drill fast enough that it will take two people to keep up with me, driving 1,000 hanging buckets,” John says. “It will start running, and I hope by Friday night they’re running over. On a good day I can run a bucket full of ‘water.’”

Two or three days later, the sap began to run, filling the buckets with 230 gallons of watery, sweet nectar. By Friday, the Smiths had collected the sap into a holding tank, a repurposed milk tank. A pipe guides the sap through a filter and to a boiler located inside the “new” indoor sugar camp shed, attached to the back of their garage. They boiled sap in a wood-fired boiler all day Sunday and Monday to reduce it down to a syrupy consistency. When the season is finished, they hope to have harvested about 4,000 gallons of sap.

“It takes anywhere from 45 to 50 gallons to make one gallon of syrup,” John adds. “When I get started it probably takes six hours before I’ll even get a draw off of it.”

When the sugar content of the dark amber syrup reaches at least 66.9 Brix — a scale measuring the percentage of sugar in maple syrup — it’s ready to pour into preheated bottles, preserving it using a hot canning technique. The process is inspected by the Huntington County Health Department.

Deloris Smith says the pure syrup is a natural product and is easily tolerated.

“It’s good for your system,” she says. “If you’ve got diabetes, it goes through your system. It doesn’t clog your arteries and stuff like the preservatives they add to it in the store.”

Deloris is also an expert on using maple syrup in cooking, having amassed an armload of cookbooks featuring recipes using the product. Her favorites include chewy maple cookies and maple cream pie.

While Mother Nature may not let the Smiths produce much syrup this year, they say it’s more a labor of love than making money.

“That’s kind of like the reward you get for doing this,” Deloris says. “How you make it and how it comes, you just don’t go to the store and buy it off the shelf. I mean, this is a gift from God.”

The Smiths sell their syrup “out the back door,” John says. For more information, call 758-2705 or 341-1698.