Sap to syrup at Sunset Farms

This story appeared April 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 

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At 6:30 a.m., the first rays of sunlight have lit up Sunset View Farm, and the birds have just begun their early morning song.

This is when Chuck Tarleton starts his workday during sugaring season. Trudging from his house to the sugaring shack at 159 Gardner Road, he starts a small fire in the evaporator that transforms sap into maple syrup.

“It has to run all day,”  he said.

By one in the afternoon, there will be a completed batch of syrup sitting on the counter and plenty more simmering. While the steam and most of the heat escape through a hole in the roof, the air in the one-room workshop stays thick with the syrup’s woodsy, sweet smell.

Mr. Tarleton is still feeding the fire, listening to talk news to pass the time.

“You can load it, and give it 10 minutes while you do something inside,” said Mr. Tarleton’s wife Livvy.  “He’s been out here all day though.”

The Tarletons have run Sunset View Farms for 34 years, but only started making syrup five years ago when a family friend suggested they give it a try, hoping to get a chance to make a batch himself.

The operation started with a pan in the driveway and a few taps, according to Ms. Tarleton.

That season they were experimenting, figuring out how to do it, and deciding if they enjoyed it.

From there, it grew to the 200 tap production people get a glimpse of as they drive by the old-fashioned buckets tacked to the farm’s prominent maple trees.

“We never make any money … It’s just kind of for fun,” said Ms. Tarleton.

Last year, the Tarletons packaged 32 gallons of syrup — a small operation by New England standards.

“It was just enough for us, gifts and to keep the stand stocked all summer,” Ms. Tarleton noted.

This season, she said they are hoping for just 15 gallons because of an unusually late start.

“It’s been a horrible year,”  she added.  “It’s been too cold for the sap to run.”

In a typical year, the sap starts running from the maple trees in mid to late March.

The season begins when the nights are still just below freezing, and the days are a sunny, 40 to 50 degrees.

According to the Tarletons, the trees have to reset every night before sap runs in the morning.

Each year the sap starts clear, but by season’s end it turns to a rusty amber color. It takes nearly 40 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup.

The Tarleton’s will have to collect 600 gallons of sap to produce the syrup they hope to stock. So far, they are about two thirds of the way there — with an estimated one week to go.

Monday was a perfect day for collecting at the farm. Without visiting all of their taps, the trees produced 110 gallons.

“Our arms got tired,”  she said.

Unlike larger operations, at Sunset View Farm all the sap is collected by hand by the Tarletons and a neighbor who allows them to tap her property as well. Deep in the woods, sap is collected by plastic tubing that looks like an IV draining the tree. At the end of the tubes is a white, five gallon bucket.

Each day, at around 4 p.m.,  the selected sites and dumps the buckets are emptied into a 65-gallon tank carted around on a tractor. It can take up to an hour to fill the tank up by hand.

Once this is done, the sap is brought back to the shack and poured into an even larger tank perched on a shelf behind the sugar shack and that’s where it sits until Mr. Tarleton releases a valve and pours it into the evaporator to be boiled.

The sap – which starts out as a slightly sweet liquid – is then boiled at 212 degrees and sinks to the bottom of the vat. It is then drained into a second heating area where it is brought up to 219 degrees, seven degrees warmer than the boiling point of water.

In that pan, the sap officially becomes syrup. From there, it is strained and packaged to be sold at the farmstand throughout the spring.

“It’s good, fresh syrup,”  said Ms. Tarleton

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