Farms pouring it on

MIDDLEFIELD – As maple syrup season starts, Sugarbush Creek Farm and other sugar houses across the area have begun the process of gathering sap to boil down into the sticky- sweet topping.

Jim Cermak, owner of Sugarbush Creek Farm, spent Presidents Day giving a teaching tour on the process. Willoughby Girl Scout Troop 71009 ventured into the woods to see where the process begins.

“There’s always an adventure,” Kathryn Royko, 14, of Willoughby South High School, said. “We’re like the misfit group who love each other.”

The Middlefield trip helped them toward a series of badges, known as a “journey,” about local production and conservation.

In the woods, Cermak pointed out some of the taps into more than 2,200 maple trees. The taps connect to a system of clear tubes. The girls leaned in close to the tree for a better view as Cermak explained the conservation aspect of harvesting sap.

“To be sustainable, we tap it very lightly,” he said.

Every year, Cermak chooses a different spot, about 90 degrees around the tree from last year’s tap location, to drill a small hole and attach the tap and tubing.

For most Ohioans, the temperamental weather is frustrating, but it is just what maple farmers need, he said. As sap rises in a tree and is held there over freezing nights, a warm temperature in the morning releases sap down the tree’s trunk, where pressure forces it out of the tap and into the tubing- or bucket, depending on farmer preference.

“So when everybody thinks the weather’s really bad,” Cermak said, “it’s good for us.”

Cermak’s modern vacuum tubing leads to a collection house several feet away in the snow-covered forest. Here the Girl Scouts crowded into the small room where UV rays are used to kill any bacteria in the sap before it fills up large holding tanks.

Whether it is a figment of the imagination or not, the building seems to smell sweet already, as if foreshadowing the next stages in the syrup process.

From the holding bins, the sap is pumped over to the sugarhouse. In the small, wood building, a reverse osmosis system filters a large portion of the water from the sap before Cermak begins the boiling process.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Cermak said he has harvested about 280 gallons so far in February, which is good because the season doesn’t come into swing until March.

“Anything in February I consider a bonus,” he said.

The girls took turns looking into a large boiler where the sap travels down a series of pans as it transforms from watery sap into its ideal state of sugary syrup.

The room next door to the boiler room has a warm fire burning in a wood stove and several cross sections of trees laid out on a table. Cermak pointed out marks in the sections where taps were made and explains the need to thoughtfully place taps so they don’t inhibit a tree’s growth.

As the girls warmed up, the moment they have been waiting for arrived – time to sample the syrup.

Cermak took a large glass container from on top of the stove and poured out small cups for each girl. Warm syrup is much better than cold syrup, he said.

The 2013 Maple Madness Driving Tour, a self-driving tour of sugarhouses across Ohio, is set for March 9 and 10, and March 16 and 17. Sugarbush Creek Farm is among area maple operations on the tour, according to the Geauga County Tourism Bureau.