After adding several hundred taps, working on lines damaged by fallen limbs and wildlife, sharpening drill bits and making sure his snowshoes are in good shape, Chris Botka is ready for sugaring season. Until about mid-February, it's a matter of watching the weather and wildlife.
Chris Botka's daughter Jennifer helps promote pure Maine maple syrup.
Photos courtesy of Chris Botka.
"Animals tell me a lot, especially the deer and moose," said Botka. "Last year we had a very late spring, but we knew that because the deer went to yard two to three weeks later than they normally do. They left the woods late, which meant spring would be later."
Botka started sugaring on a commercial basis in 2004 in the Wilton, Maine, area. As his business grew, he needed more trees to tap, so he moved his operation to Rangeley.
"I was surprised to learn that the state had never leased trees for tapping," said Botka, who used his background in real estate to help write the lease agreement. "The state tweaked the lease, then it was used as a model for other leases throughout the state. They just did a 17,000-tap lease in the Jackman area and are pursuing more leases on public land as a means of generating revenue and making better use of the land."
Chris Botka uses a Waterloo bottler to bottle syrup for sale.
Today, Botka has 1,700 taps on 60 acres of state land. Because his taps are on state land, he shares the trails with snowmobilers. ITS (interconnected trail system) 80 runs through his sugar bush, so many of the snowmobilers who come to the Rangeley area see the tubing lines and taps when they're in the woods. Although this has the potential to present problems, Botka looks at the positive side.
"I'm up there working every day," said Botka. "When the snowmobilers see my snowshoe tracks, they slow down to talk. Sometimes they bring kids and we talk about how trees are tapped and I let them taste sap. It might take up time talking with people, but it promotes the business. I always listen to their stories about the time they sugared with their grandparents. That's what people really like."
Botka realizes that the time he spends talking with people helps promote pure maple syrup, which is something he's passionate about. "I get to talk about the healthy aspect of maple syrup," he said. "Word gets back to the community through stores, restaurants, hotels. Then the hotels will encourage people to snowmobile or snowshoe out to the sugar bush to see the tubing and taps." Although people sometimes remove taps to taste the sap, Botka says that the PR for the state of Maine outweighs any nuisance he has to put up with. He simply resets the taps and plugs the hoses back in.
In addition to watching wildlife for signs that it's time for sap to run, Botka watches weather reports and pays close attention to his own weather stations - one at his home and one at his sugar bush trailer. He's also found that it's important to be aware of the time frame in which sap might start running. He says that the old rule of thumb was to be tapped before March 10, but notes that two years ago spring was early and he was tapping and drawing sap the first and second weeks in February.
Chris Botka uses a mobile sap house to collect sap from his sugar bush, then transports the sap back to his sugarhouse for processing.
"A lot of people missed runs that year," he said. "If you wait too long and get late spring snow, your lines could be in the snow. Four years ago, in most of northern Maine, lines were under the snow. Then there were ice storms on top of that. They never got tapped out and had a poor season. There's really no control of when sap is going to flow. You have to be early enough, but there's a downside to being early. There might be hard freezes, then thawing, and that pushes sap out the tap holes and pushes taps out of trees. I have to continually walk lines, check and reset taps."
Botka monitors wind, temperature and barometric pressure, but says those readings are useful as indicators of current conditions rather than predictors. "When the sun goes down, temperatures drop," he said. "Bright nights are colder, so I know that at 5 or 6 in the evening I should shut the vacuum pumps off. On rainy, cloudy nights, the pumps can run all night; it doesn't get cold enough for trees to shut down." Botka says that temperatures in the upper atmosphere, not at the base, are what matter. "Temperatures change dramatically in the upper atmosphere," he said. "The ground fog comes in, which is cool air going over the snow. It'll be cooler below but it might be 10 to 12 degrees warmer above. That pulls sap upward, and as it comes back down we're collecting it."
Once the season starts, Botka collects an average of 1,500 gallons daily. The sap goes into a 4-by-12-foot Waterloo evaporator, which handles 135 gallons of sap/hour. Botka says that on a good day, he's dumping 8.5 gallons of sap every four minutes. The evaporator and other equipment are inside Botka's mobile sugarhouse, which allows him to be close to his lines during sugaring.
Chris Botka custom-bottles pure Maine maple syrup for promotions and special events such as weddings.
"The trailer has a 1,100-gallon stainless steel tank," he said. "There's a double mechanical releaser that holds vacuum on one side while it's collecting sap on the other side. When it fills up, the sap dumps into the tank and switches over to the collecting side."
As the sap supply diminishes, Botka shuts down the burners and allows the remainder to steam off. "The front pans go in the finisher to clean, then I put syrup back in. The next day those pans already have syrup in them, but I might thin it with sap," he explains. Botka changes the pans every other boil, so minerals don't accumulate, and uses a vinegar-based acid to remove deposits.
Chris Botka supports maple promotion efforts such as this display at the Fryeburg Fair.
Because Botka has figured out what should happen and when during processing, he prefers to work alone in his sugarhouse. "It's intense," he said. "I'm running sap through a reverse osmosis system. I'm trying to make sure the balance of what goes in equals what's going through the evaporator. I'm boiling in relatively shallow pans, so I have to watch those closely, and I'm watching the levels flow. Then as it's drawing off, I'm filtering, testing and jugging hot liquid into containers. The evaporator bay is small to keep the area warm and efficient, and there's enough space to work, but not enough for extra people."
Exterior of Chris Botka's sugarhouse.
As much as Botka prefers to handle processing alone, he welcomes visitors when he isn't busy. "It's a good hands-on experience," he said. "People can walk in and see the tanks, vacuum pumps and how the sap comes in. There's always a local following of curiosity seekers to see if the sap is running. I want this to be a community thing because the community supports my sales. I'm using public lands for this, so I have a responsibility to work with the state to make this a positive experience for people."
The main piece of equipment in Chris Botka's sugarhouse is an oil-fired evaporator.
Chris Botka offers a variety of Maine maple products through his Maine Mountain Maple brand, including gift baskets and custom- bottled maple syrup.
Botka has spent considerable time learning about his customers, and his reward is brisk syrup sales. He knows when skiers will be in town and that they'll be purchasing locally produced maple syrup. Botka's Maine Mountain Maple brand syrup (www.mainemountainmaple.com
) is served in local restaurants and B&Bs, and is available for purchase in specialty and grocery stores. Restaurants don't sell the syrup, but refer customers to local stores that do.
Botka also sells his maple products online, so he's not competing with stores. He promotes Maine maple syrup wherever he can and spends two days working the maple booth at the Fryeburg Fair.
"Every drop of syrup any producer makes will be sold," said Botka. "We can sell it, but we have to grow the industry to support the demand. We have to educate farmers and change regulations, and get better publicity for marketing. Nobody complains about sweet maple syrup. Nobody."
The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in southcentral Pennsylvania.