For a young boy, nothing can compare with being outdoors, playing with fire and water and enjoying the fruits of one's own hard work. Growing up in rural Pittstown, N.Y., Cliff Nightingale discovered he had a passion for sugaring when he was nine years old. "I could play with fire and water and have sweets," he explained, "how can you beat that!"
Cliff and Sally packing maple candies.
Photos by Katie Navarra.
Cliff collected sap from trees on his parent's property each winter. "The family had syrup on the table because of my efforts," he said. He continued to produce syrup throughout his teenage years and produced enough for his family to enjoy all year long. After finishing school in 1960, Cliff lived in the cities of Troy and Amsterdam, N.Y., and had to give up sugaring.
Seven years away was long enough. In 1967, Cliff purchased his first piece of property on Jersey Hill Road in Amsterdam, N.Y. He balanced a full-time career as an electrician with his hobby for sugaring. "We first collected sap with 100 buckets," he reminisced, "it was enough for family and friends." Then, in 1978, he purchased a second piece of property on the same road and Nightingale's Maple Farm was officially open for business.
Cliff quickly transitioned from collecting sap with buckets to relying on tubing to carry the sap from the trees to storage tanks. Today, 11 miles of tubing stretch between trees spread over 30 acres. Nearly 1,800 trees host the 2,300 tap holes Cliff installs each winter. "A few years ago, in New York state, the average maple producer had 1,100 taps," he said. "Based on that, we are an above average-sized producer."
Nightingale's enjoys the luxury of selling nearly its entire product directly on the farm. "There is a little grocery store in Galway and a little winemaker a few miles down the road that sells some of our syrup;the rest is sold here," he said proudly.
Approximately a third of their sales occur "in-season." Participating in the annual New York State Maple Producers celebration, held annually during the last two weeks of March, typically brings 1,000 visitors to the farm. "We did not get the turnout this year for some reason," he noted, but he remains hopeful that the 2013 season will be stronger. Throughout the year, the remainder of the year's supply is sold through the retail store on-site or shipped around the world.
Weather made the 2012 maple season a challenge. Like other maple farms, Cliff typically begins tapping in mid-February. "This year I started in early February," he said, "I don't know how, but I was ready and I tapped extra early."
His preparedness paid off - he was able to capture all of the sap in his trees. Because of the mild winter, his yield was about 75 percent of other years, but "others that tapped 'on time' got half to none of their normal crop," he explained. "We got just under 600 gallons (of syrup) this year. It is very high quality. We are elated and optimistic."
Cliff does most of the woods work himself. Starting in early February, he spends about one week drilling tap holes. "Sometimes my son or grandson will help." Preparing the trees for maple season is the most challenging part of the year for Cliff.
"As light as a cordless drill is - and it has been a huge breakthrough for sugar makers - it is hard on arthritic arms," he explained. He takes the first few days of drilling slowly to gradually build up his joints. "I will drill 100 the first day, 200 the second day and ramp up," he said. Then, it is full speed ahead until all 2,300 tap holes are finished.
Once the holes are drilled, the sap begins to flow. The highest point of elevation on his property is 1,100 feet, and sap is directed from the highest point on the property down to the sugarhouse at 900 feet. "We have learned a few tricks, so things have gotten easier," Cliff laughed, "and innovations have been made through product research, like specially made spouts that yield more sap."
The sap is channeled through carefully labeled PVC pipes into a vacuum storage tank. "On a good day, 3 to 4 gallons (of sap) per minute flow in," he said. When the sap level reaches the maximum fill line, a pump kicks on and sends the sap through a UV sterilizer light. The sap then flows through a water meter so that Cliff can precisely measure the amount of sap collected before sending the sap outside into a larger storage tank.
Then, the fun begins.
Playing with fire and water
Before sending the sap into an evaporator for boiling, Cliff first sends the sap through a reverse osmosis machine. Using a traditional method of boiling sap in an evaporator, 140 gallons of raw sap yield approximately 3 gallons of finished syrup. By adding the reverse osmosis machine to the process, Cliff has quadrupled his overall yield. "I can get 12 gallons (of syrup) an hour," he explained.
During the peak season, sap is boiled daily in the sugarhouse. A water-jacketed canning machine is used to process 40 gallons of syrup at a time. Traditional plastic jugs of varying sizes as well as decorative maple leaf- shaped glass jars are used during the bottling process. Cliff and his wife Sally also produce maple candies and other maple confections.
Several years ago, Cliff sold his electrical contracting business to his son and turned his entire focus on producing maple products. "I find the whole process to be satisfying," he said. "Our syrup has been sold all over the world and to just about every continent," he beamed.
Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.