If you should one day happen to receive a jar of Maple Syrup harvested from the sugars of Howell Living History Farm (and you're a hypochondriac), you may ask yourself, "I wonder if the equipment used to boil down all this syrup was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected beforehand?"
Rest easy. I spent several hours yesterday scrubbing down the metal and aluminum parts of the evaporator in which every 40 gallons of sap will burn to a single gallon of syrup. I used a mixture of warm water and white vinegar, and those scruffy, scratchy green pads I associate with doing dishes in the kitchen sink. During most of my labors I was all alone in an old barn, just me and the metal and my thoughts. It was very Zen.
Jim, one of the expert farmers around here, explained to me there's a window of about 8 to 10 weeks -- starting about now -- in which the trees can be harvested for sap. It depends on the weather. I'm not certain I understand all this precisely, but here's what I think I know:
Sugar-laced sap will start pumping up from the roots of the maple trees to the limbs and branches and finally the new buds at the first signs of spring warmth and sunshine. But if the sap were to stay in the new buds all night when the temperature drops back below 32 degrees, the buds will freeze and burst. So on cold nights trees pump their sap back down their trunks. It's this pumping -- up during the day's warmth and down during the night's cool -- that enables farmers to siphon the sap from the outer layers of the tree for use in making syrup.
And what can happen during an unseasonably warm winter such as the one we are now experiencing in New Jersey?
If spring comes early and fast and the temperatures rise and stay high even at night, the trees will pump all their sap from roots to bud early on. The buds will hold the sap and mature quickly. At that point, the trees will shut down their sap pumps, and the year's tapping will be over prematurely, resulting in a poor harvest and less syrup.
In the next few days, however, according to weather.com, the temperature is supposed to drop back down again, to the lows 20s at night, and then up to the 40s during the days. Could be good news for all the syrupheads out there.