Autumn Update: From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

After much preparation and anticipation, Doug Munroe's sugar house is up! In the true spirit of traditional house raising, the family gathered, coming from far off places. They brought skills, creativity, sweat, and jubilation.

The week of raising, August 1-8, was one of pure mountainous glory, as the meadows were full of flowers, butterflies fluttered about in great numbers and variety, and the skies offered several days of rain-free weather. With architectural plans in hand, a horse pulled logging crew and sawyer, a crew of experienced carpenters, and another crew providing food and drink...locust and poplar were turned into a sugar house in a week, save for some complicated connections on the roof.

As roof construction reached the final details, it became apparent that finding the right roof jack for the flue opening would be a challenge. That issue was resolved, and after many technical challenges, the roof jack was secured. Since then the roof has been completed, all the way to the cupola. A tin roof was installed, and custom flashing was made. The siding is up, and two holes were cut, making room for two large windows that hold old wavy and bubbly glass panes. Today, Doug is building a front door. Next week an electrician will arrive to install lights and wiring.

With the timing of September’s drought and the addition of the sugar house, Doug is quite overwhelmed. Like many other farmers throughout the region, there is a rush to do work that could not be done when the ground was dry and hard. Gardens are being tended for next year’s crop, remaining hay is being harvested, grading and hole digging has commenced, and the time for gathering firewood is upon us. Busy, busy , busy!

While Doug tends to his usual tasks, including the planting of saplings for his tree nursery, he’s scrambling to ensure the sugar harvest operation is ready in time for next February’s sap drop. It looks like the sugar house and related equipment will be in place in plenty of time. The final and hefty bit of work to is to install tubing. This can be a complex thing to do, especially on complex terrain. So, to gain some confidence and hands-on experience, Doug will be traveling to northern Vermont in early November for a class at a tubing demonstration site . The workshop will be held at Leader Evaporator Company’s retail facility in Swanton, Vermont (to learn more: www.leaderevaporator.com ).

The trip will also be used to save shipping costs. Doug will pick up the final pieces of major equipment needed, including 3 tanks, a custom-built evaporator and a filtering sytem. This should save nearly $500 in shipping costs! The resulting tubing experience and increased confidence in using tubing tools should bring the sugar operation to a state of readiness!

2011 production estimates: Doug anticipates that he will produce about 20 gallons of syrup in 2011. He will be selling it in 8oz. and 12oz. portions because of the limited quantity and the large amount of requests. In summer of 2011 the final remaining network of tubes and maple trees will be tied into the production system, and that will greatly increase capacity for 2012. American umbrellaleaf fruit, Diphylleia cymosa.

All images ©Devin Floyd.

Doug Munroe shares his story. Video by Sheridan Hill. July, 2010.

Links to prior articles:
Introduction 2009
November update, 2009
December update, 2009
February update, 201o
March update, 2010
Summer update, 2010

Summer Update: From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

Drawing of the proposed Waterfall Mtn. Sugar House. Aaron Floyd (copyright, May 2010)

July 20, 2010. And the Sugar House will rise!
Things do move slower in the mountains, or so it seems sometimes. I certainly have a harder time continuing my break-neck multi-tasking ways when I am there. The beauty and the harshness slow you down. The steep hills, the rough winters, ....and the meadows and forests so rich with life and beauty that one is spellbound immediately upon entering this world. Ahh...it is summer in the highlands of the Blue Ridge...morning dew, the gentle breeze laced with complex sweetness, deep earthiness... and the people, up at sunrise, are busy as bees maximizing the coming bounty of fall as the inevitable struggle of winter will quickly follow.
Up at Doug Munroe's farm, on the NE side of the amphibolite mountains, preparation is full steam ahead...but not for the resulting fruits of summer and fall. Late winter brings its own sort of sweetness. The sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) gifts its sucrose, nearly all at once, to those that are prepared to receive it!

Here is an update on Doug's effort to shift from simple backyard syrup production to commercial viability:

The utility lines are in, and RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) has given this stage of construction a thumbs up. Approval on standards and quality was verified today! With major equipment arriving in October, sugar house construction must begin at once.
Over the last 4 months much preparation and planning has taken place. The site was prepared, wood milled, and plans were drawn up. Doug received a sugar house design from the University of Vermont, but the plans did not quite suit the planned site. Doug worked with Aaron Floyd to come up with a new design that would meet the unusual needs of a mountain-side site.
For detailed plan drawings, see PDF file: Sugar House Plans (by Aaron Floyd, 05/27/2010)

A volunteer sugar house construction effort will take place from August 2-7. This will mostly be a family affair, with sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, children, cousins and friends coming from afar to lend a hand. There should be four generations on hand. The goal will be to get the structure up and the roof on....in 5 days.
This week the Mountain Works horses will return to assist in the moving of milled sills and posts. With the help of those strong horses and some skilled and hardworking individuals, the sill plates, the posts, and a concrete pad should all be installed in plenty of time for the volunteer construction arriving in early August. Doug has already assigned volunteer roles, job boss included.
Black Locust is the wood of choice for these parts of the house. It is an Appalachian farm-use staple (see Native Range Map). The rot resistant wood is used frequently for fence posts, and it burns hot, lending itself well for heat production in the winter months. Locust posts have been known to last a lifetime in the ground, so this locally growing species of tree is the perfect choice for sill plate material! I should mention that this tree is considered a nuisance by many, as it is hardy and aggressive. This early successional pioneer plant will send up many new shoots when cut to the ground...you will find it advancing into freshly abandoned fields and roadsides (you may even find a fence post sprouting!). Like many hardy and invasive plants, this one can be utilized for so many things. Last spring, my nose utilized the trees' super sweet droop of creamy white flowers! Species Fact Sheet: Black Locust

If you would like to join this volunteer effort, contact Doug Munroe at 336-385-6507.

Image Sources:
>Illustrations copyright Aaron Floyd, 2010.
>Black Locust illustration borrowed from the Forest Service Silvics manual: http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/robinia/pseudoacacia.htm

Links to prior articles:
Introduction 2009
November update, 2009
December update, 2009
February update, 201o

March update, 2010

March Update: From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

March 11. Good News! Doug Munroe received news that he has been awarded a grant from the Tobacco Community Reinvestment Fund to jump start his project. This resource is offered by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). Here's a link to the current grant recipient projects (2009)...Doug's effort will be right at home!!: Current Projects
This means it's official. Doug will be able to move forward with putting in place the infrastructure needed to shift to full scale syrup production. This is exciting. This effort will serve as a very strong example of how a nearby land owners may make a living by sustainably harvesting natural resources on their land. This project will provide details of how to make the transition. There are plans to provide demonstrations and/or seminars for other farmers in the area, using Doug's effort as an example. Details on the timing of these small events will be shared as they are scheduled.

Bad News! Because of the recent rise in popularity of syrup production it appears North Carolina will begin regulating maple syrup production and sale. Up until recently, one could make syrup in the backyard and sell it at the local market without regulation. It appears this will no longer be the case. What does this mean for Doug and other farmers making the transition? ...added costs for the farmer. Doug's plans for the sugar house will probably have to change. He may be required to have a certified kitchen (including water heater, stainless steel equipment, pipes, etc.) which will increase his cost substantially. Doug has been informed that regulations have already been put in place!! It is probable that the effort to bring greater awareness to local sustainability brought about this change. An article in "Our State Magazine" featured the maple syrup farmer. The word is getting out. Too bad increased popularity means increased regulations.

This year's harvest was modest. On the side of that mountain, two feet of snow and 3-4 foot drifts has made getting around a bit of a challenge. Doug exclaimed," I haven't seen snow and cold like this since the 1970's!". Even with the recent influx of warmth, on Tuesday he still reported 6 inches of snow in the open fields.
On Sunday Doug hauled 80 gallons of sap to the cooker. By Tuesday (at the time of the interview for this article) he had collected 20 additional gallons. This year's snowy and cold February only produced 1 quart of maple syrup. So far March has produced 1.5 gallons. The adverse weather has caused a very late sap drop. Doug still cooks his sap over burning wood, all of which is gathered from the forest floor around his house. I remember how challenging it was to gather this wood last year! This year, Doug dealt with deep snow and did wood collection without the large group of wood-gathering volunteers! Believe it or not, he is hoping for another spell of very cold weather. It is the cold night and subsequent warm day that brings more sap!

All Photographs in this posting taken by Patrick Considine

Links to prior articles:

Introduction 2009

November update, 2009

December update, 2009

February update, 2010

Summer Update, 2010

February Update: From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

Snow!! Since the December 18 snow that left 20 inches in Ashe County, the ground has been exposed only three days! A very wet fall and a couple of months of snow have put the brakes on everything at this mountainside farm. Basic annual rituals of planting and harvesting have been stalled. The ground is saturated. An occasional break in the snow reveals either ice or muck. The resulting stress is extra potent in the highlands...in those areas where folks use firewood on a daily basis and rely upon the bounty of their land to produce income.

Slow but steady: Doug's plans for a maple syrup farm are moving forth, slowly. He received a response to his early-bird Tobacco Community Reinvestment Fund grant application (sent in early December) from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). They have requested some minor corrections and clarifications. They want to know Doug's plan for getting word out to local farmers about his project. He hopes to get fairly good coverage in a local newspaper and an Agricultural Extension Agent will host a workday to share the details of the project with local farmers. In this way, farmers will get an introduction to this untapped resource and its potential to be a sustainable farming practice. They also wanted to know how much net profit is expected from this operation. The final word on whether Doug is successful in securing the grant will come on March 9, 2010. Right now things look positive.
Some small scale tree tapping and syrup production will take place again this year....with a few changes. Doug has proceeded to order new taps and tubing. The new taps will be 5/16", compared to last year's 9/16", in order to fit the tubing. He expects the taps and tubes to arrive any day now. In fact, the UPS may have attempted delivery already. Doug saw the truck turn around after trying to get up his driveway. Along with these larger items, Doug has been acquiring smaller things gradually, like a wire spooler (which will carry 1/2 mile of 12.5 gauge wire....the spooler prevents kinks) and a cordless drill for tapping trees.

Pouring sap into the cooking pan, February 2009

It is time to harvest sap: For this year's harvest, tapping will begin this week. With the new taps and tubing, the lines will run directly to buckets, and the buckets will be covered with a lid. This will be an air-tight system, which should increase efficiency substantially. Another benefit of the closed system is that the taps won't dry out during windy conditions. Doug plans to tap only 25 trees this year (we witnessed 40 taps last year...some in very hard-to-reach places) and expects a greater output because of the new system. For this year's small harvest, Doug will again rely upon an exterior fireplace and boiling pan. Some preparation work will be needed in the coming week to repair this setup...the weather has wreaked havoc on things. Yesterday Doug plowed snow and ice from the site and he anticipates needing some gravel to level things.The full upgrade to his system won't begin until the fall. This includes full installation of tubes, placement of a collection tank and the construction of a sugar house.

The outdoor fireplace and processing pan, February 2009

This summer sugar house preparation will begin. The foundation will be installed and trees from the property will be milled. Doug hopes to construct the Sugar House during the week of September 20th-24th. He is looking for volunteers, and has some commitments already (Wheeler, Louis, Steve). If enough people show up, he plans to install the extensive network of tubing planned for next year's production.

Links to other updates:
Introduction, 2009
November, 2009
December, 2009

March, 2010

Summer Update, 2010

December Update: From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

A view of part of Doug's farm.
Doug has submitted an early-bird grant application to take advantage of a review process. This will point to any holes that may remain in the application.

While Doug awaits a response, he continues to study. On December 1, 2009, he made a trip to White Top Mountain, just across the NC/VA state line, to have another look at the maple syrup operation and to took notes with an eye specifically toward tubing. It is Doug’s hope to find a local source for his tubing. This may be a challenge because the tubes required are not the standard "black tubing" we see at hardware stores. Maple syrup tubes are made of a material that will not transfer a "plastic" flavor. So, he continues his search for a good source, and is preparing for the order. Within a week, and if the weather permits, Doug will begin the first step in installing the main line of tubing. This begins with running wire. Only after a main line of tubing is installed will lateral lines be installed.
For a glance at highland weather, it is 35 degrees and cloudy today at Doug’s house, with mountain peaks nestled in the clouds. Doug expects 3-6 inches of snow Saturday. Keep in mind that elevational differences. Doug's land sits at 3,200 - 3,400', and the peaks near his house rise to between 4,400-4,600 feet. Remember that the air cools on average 3.4 degrees F with each 1,000 feet of climb, which is just enough to give Doug a little extra snow every year!When he was at White Top Mountain (one can drive up to 5,440 - 5,520 feet) in Virginia on Tuesday, he encountered 2 inches of snow and a crystal clear day! Mt. Mitchell could be seen on the horizon, a view of nearly 65 miles!
Links to other updates:

November Update: From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

November 1, 2009
Doug has graded the yard behind his house in preparation for building a syrup processing house. The building will be constructed from timber harvested from his land during recent thinning. This thinning was done by Mountain Works out of Todd, North Carolina using sustainable and low-impact techniques. The wood will be milled at a local mill this winter so it will be ready for construction next year. In addition to using the wood from his property for construction needs, a large recycled greenhouse frame will be incorporated.
Doug is currently planning to install tubing to the trees down slope from his house. He is plotting the main line of tubing using string. This main line will connect nearly 100 taps and plotting its path has been a challenge because of the steep and varied slopes. The line must run consistently uphill while hitting as many trees as possible. The tubes will create an airtight system and thus a vacuum. This greatly increases sap flow as it draws the liquid from the trees. He expects the output to be significantly more this coming winter. A 100 gallon tank will be placed at the bottom of this tubing run and the sap will be transported to the site of production further up the hill after the sap has dropped...saving lots of time and sweat. Last year small buckets and jugs of sap were muscled up the hill to be processed!

Links to other updates:

From Backyard Sugarer to Commercial Syrup Production

Introduction to the Project:

BRDC’s Doug Munroe of Warrensville, North Carolina lives along the northwest edge of the Amphibolite Mountains. He has worked this rocky slope for 34 years and currently operates a tree nursery there. The land rests at an elevation of about 3,400 feet upon very rich amphibolite soils. The mountain directly behind his house climbs to a height of 4,600 feet, a transition that happens in less than a half a mile. Very rich soils, very high rainfall amounts, and high elevations have created a forest dominated by yellow poplar and sugar maple. Selectively cutting the poplars is increasing the already dominate presence of Sugar Maple trees. It is Doug's hope to soon utilize this forest of Sugar Maples for commercial maple syrup production. With some simple improvements to techniques of harvesting and processing sap he plans to produce about 15 gallons of syrup this coming year.
Doug is seeking a grant from the Tobacco Community Reinvestment Fund to jump start this project. This resource is offered by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). RAFI "cultivates markets, policies and communities that support thriving, socially just and environmentally sound family farms" (see link to website below). It is hoped that this grant will cover the costs of purchasing an evaporator, a tube cleaner and a 750 gallon sap tank. The evaporator will allow for syrup production to increase 3-fold above the current capacity.
Links: Doug is seeking a grant offered by: http://www.rafiusa.org/ (Specific information about the reinvestment fund : www.rafiusa.org/programs/tobacco/tobacco.html )

Links to other updates: