Farming Magazine - June, 2013

SUGARING

Bradbury Maple Hits the Sweet Spot

By Tamara Scully


Charlene Boyd makes maple taffy on snow for visitors to Bradbury Maple
Photos courtesy of Bradbury Maple.

Maine's Aroostook County may be known for its potato farming, but it also has its share of maple syrup production. One of the biggest challenges in the sugar bush is keeping the moose out of the vacuum lines. Other than that, with the colder northern Maine climate, there seem to be fewer pest issues than are found in sugar bushes in more southern regions of the state, said sugar maker Bart Bradbury of Bradbury Maple (www.bradburymaple.com). The family's 80-acre sugar bush produces approximately 800 gallons of maple syrup per year, with an additional 200 gallons being used to make value-added maple products.

Bradbury is concerned, however, that the extreme weather patterns experienced in the region over the past few years may change that. He is worried that pest and disease issues may increase as the climate changes, with warmer weather making the region more hospitable to pests.

An early warm-up in 2012 impacted the season's syrup production across the Northeast. It kept the normal seasonal temperature fluctuations - necessary for sap flow - in chaos and hastened budding, which alters the flavor of sap, ending the sugaring season quickly in much of New England.

"All states, with the exception of Maine, showed a reduction in production from the previous year. Most producers reported that temperatures were too warm for optimal sap flow. The season started sooner than last year in all states and lasted 24 days on average, compared with 32 days in 2011," according to the USDA's 2012 maple syrup production report (http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/New_England_includes/Publications/0605mpl.pdf ). In 2012, Maine had the highest maple syrup yield per tap out of the New England states, reflecting that the early warm spell had less impact in Maine than in more southern regions.

Trees are typically tapped at Bradbury Maple during the last week of February, when the conditions normally support the flow of sap. The sap is collected over a four-week period, ending the last week of March. The entire maple season is usually six weeks long, from first tap to bottling the last of the syrup.

Bradbury's sugar bush has 3,000 taps and is set up entirely on a vacuum system, which was recently upgraded. Because the land is flat, sap collection is particularly challenging. Creating a slope to get the sap to travel where it needs to go is tricky. The new high-volume, high-capacity vacuum, with a 7.5 hp, 5,500 CFM, two-stage Kinney pump has helped to make sap collection more productive, Bradbury said.

Candy land

Bradbury Maple is a true family affair, with three generations working together to produce maple syrup and an array of maple products for the true maple connoisseur. If you have a hankering for maple beyond syrup, Bradbury Maple is a destination, offering maple cotton candy, maple suckers, maple candy, maple sugar, maple jelly and maple cream.

"The value-added part has been a big part of our sales," Bradbury said. "I estimate 20 percent of our syrup goes into maple products."

Bradbury Maple is open to the public on weekends during the sugar making season. They also accommodate group tours by appointment. Visitors are treated to maple taffy on snow, receive a tour of the operation and can satisfy their maple cravings. While on-site maple sales occur during the sugaring season, Bradbury maple products are sold year-round by phone or through the farm's online store.

The confection maker of the family is Bart's mother, Charlene Bradbury. She crafts the numerous sweet treats using machines that her husband, Boyd Bradbury, created. Boyd made the cream machine, as well as the finishing pan and four evaporating pans for the operation, from stainless steel, which he welds himself.

The family crafts their confections exclusively using their own syrup. "Over the years, we have been able to balance our sales with our production. We only sell our own maple syrup [and maple products made from that syrup]," Bradbury said.

Family heritage

The land was owned by Bradbury's great-great-grandfather, Ellie Sharp, who was a sugar maker for a few short years. After his death, the sugar bush was taken out of production, and the operation was all but forgotten. Eventually, Bradbury's father inherited one-half of the original woodlot. After finding the ruins of the old sugarhouse, he pieced it all back together and began to tap the trees and collect the sap, making 15 gallons of syrup his first year (1984) from 150 taps.

Since then, the family has continued to carry on the tradition of sugar making, begun generations ago. The evaporator, which was rebuilt by Boyd, incorporates the original 1934 evaporator used by his great-grandfather. The front of the present evaporator came off of the 4-by-12-foot G.H. Grimm Co. evaporator originally used by his ancestor.

The family no longer uses wood to fire the evaporator; they opted to convert to oil for fuel efficiency, using less than 1 gallon of fuel oil for every gallon of syrup processed. Reducing the labor involved in having an adequate supply of firewood on hand was also an objective, along with generating a steadier heat supply and the ability to just "turn off the switch" at the end of the day.

The transition from wood to oil has also allowed "more time to monitor the evaporator," Bradbury said, as the fire does not need tending, and more care can be given to the actual process of making syrup. At the same time the operation switched fuels, they added a reverse osmosis machine. Bradbury operates the machine, which is used to force water from the sap through a semipermeable membrane, leaving a more concentrated sap for the next step. The evaporator, run by cousin George Bradbury, then has less water to evaporate from the syrup, making the evaporation process more efficient.

"I personally enjoy the challenge of implementing new innovations and technology to increase yields, syrup quality and the overall efficiency of the production system," Bradbury said. "The maple syrup industry, as all of agriculture, has seen a lot of changes and advances in the 30 years that I have been involved. It is hard to imagine what agriculture is going to look like 30 years from now."

The Bradbury children - Whitnie, 16; Clark, 13; Breann, 10; and Brayden, 10 - are all part of the family operation. From tapping to sales, they all have a role and a preference for their favorite aspects of the job. Breann enjoys the work in the woods, assisting her father and grandfather. At open house weekends, she also provides customer service and sales. Brayden is the "resupplier," keeping the tapping crew in batteries and taps, and he also checks the vacuum lines for leaks, as does Clark, who is also on the tapping crew. Whitnie assists her grandmother in making the confections, while mom Heather works the tours and serves maple taffy on snow to visitors.

At Bradbury Maple, sugaring is a part of life. The family is connected to the land and to the craft that began several generations ago, recreated and expanded to make maple the family business and the family legacy.

"Being a sugar maker is a unique experience, especially doing something that was started five generations ago and continuing it on. Being in the woods in the springtime, working with family and seeing the next generation be involved is a lot of fun," Bradbury said. This is what makes all the work quite sweet for the Bradbury family: "Opening the farm to visitors and watching the amazement as they see how we collect the sap and transform it to wonderful sweet treats, and listen[ing] to older generations talk about how their parents and grandparents used to collect sap and make maple syrup."

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.