If you look to the south into the Sanford-family woods as you drive along 40th Street west of Mille Lacs County Road 102 in Greenbush Township,you might catch a glimpse of a white milk jug or two hanging from a tree.
It isn’t until you head down a muddy trail going into the west end of the woods that you start noticing more and more of the milk jugs, and later some blue plastic sacks hanging from the maples.
On April 9, there was a clear liquid in the milk jugs and sacks — sap from the maple trees that Ken Sanford, who lives nearby, began tapping on about March 20. Within a few days Sanford began cooking batches of the sap into a thick maple syrup.
Sanford funnels his sweet, amber maple syrup into bottles labeled “Sanford’s Sugarbush, A Family Tradition since the 1850s.”
As Sanford, 52, drove a small ATV into his woods in the late afternoon of April 9 to gather sap from the maples, he had a 50-gallon plastic barrel on the back of the ATV. Gracie, his 3-year-old Australian shepherd-border collie mix, followed with a plastic disc in her mouth for someone to play fetch with her.
Not far into the woods, Sanford, wearing dark amber sunglasses and pulling on a partially burned down cigarette, stopped every so often to pour the sap from the milk jugs and sacks into a 5-gallon bucket. When the bucket got full, he would pour that into a funnel with a cloth filter draped on top, to send the sap into the big blue barrel.
Sanford spent one to two hours out in the woods going from tree to tree, emptying the jugs and sap sacks, before heading home. He said that sometimes the sap has runs so well that he has had to go back to his place to empty out the barrel before he was done collecting sap from his 110-115 taps. The taps are a pieces of copper pipe shoved into holes Sanford drilled into the maple.
Two weekends ago Sanford harvested 100 gallons on a Saturday and 95 gallons the next day. Otherwise, the daily harvest has been “spotty” this spring, “25 gallons here, 28 gallons there,” Sanford said.
The trees Sanford taps are sugar maples, which produce more sap per tree than some other maples.
The ideal conditions for getting the sap to run up and down the tree in a pumping action to get a good flow is for the weather to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, Sanford explained.
So far, this spring’s maple sap harvest has not been as good as last year’s, when the spring weather came late and the cold lingered into May. But it is better than the spring of 2012, which came extra early, he noted.
No matter the weather, the maple trees can vary greatly for sap output, he observed. One tree can produce a gallon of sap in a day, while another maple 10 feet away may only produce one cup in a day, he said. He places two taps on some trees, and he has noticed one side on trees producing more sap than the other side.
The Sanford heritage
Sanford said the maple sap gathering goes back to when the first Sanfords homesteaded in the area, whom he said were R.E. Sanford and his brother Saul S. Sanford in the 1800s. After that came Ken’s great-grandfather Elwood, then grandfather Byron and finally Ken’s father Richard.
Ken noted one newspaper story told of R.E. and Saul producing more than 1,000 pounds of maple sugar one spring from maple sap. To be able to make that much maple sugar, the two had to have been doing that a while, Ken said.
Ken Sanford began his maple syrup operation more than six more than years ago. Last year he had his maple syrup label produced featuring the Sanford name.
He calls his maple syrup operation a hobby, saying he sells the syrup to family and friends and makes enough to pay for his costs, which include the propane to cook down the sap. Now with propane costing much more, he has decided to use a wood fire next year to do the early part of the cook-down.
Sanford has two large pans measuring about 40 inches by 24 inches each, about 6 inches deep, to do the early part of the cooking in which liquid evaporates. When it is concentrated to a certain degree, he places the liquid in a commercial coffee maker for the final heating. He cooks 75-80 gallons in each batch, meaning he has to fill the large pans several times per batch. He uses a hydrometer for the final heating to get the sugar concentration he wants.
Last year he cooked about 1,200 gallons of sap and ended up with about 50 gallons of syrup, meaning his ratio of sap to syrup was 24 to 1. Some maple syrup harvesters have a lighter sap and have to cook more sap than that for the equivalent syrup, he notes. Maple syrup can be made from box elder and silver maples, and those are trees that produce a much lighter sap, he said.
“I enjoy being out in the woods; that’s the half of it, especially today (because of the nice weather),” he said as he went into the woods to gather the sap.
Sanford first learned about gathering maple sap as a child, helping his stepfather with his maple syrup making.
Sanford doesn’t know for sure if his two sons, Nick and Mark, who are in their 20s will carry on the maple syrup making tradition. They have helped him with the maple syrup operation when they have been able but are now out on their own.
But there is one clue that they just might continue the harvest after Ken stops tapping the maple trees.
“They enjoy the syrup,” Ken said.