KNIGHTSTOWN — There is a special energy that fills the air when winter turns to spring.
Mornings that were consistently cold and quiet begin to warm and are suddenly filled with the chatter of birds and the brightness of a bold sunrise.
Pat McCartney knows when it’s time. In the days just before the trees begin to bud, before the grass perks up and turns green, he and his family look to their maple trees, knowing the sweet elixir that lies beneath the bark is ready for harvesting.
It’s maple syrup season.
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“When you look around right now, the trees just look dead,” McCartney said. “There are very few products that have a spring harvest; almost everything is in the fall. So, we started thinking, what could we do (during this time)? And this was pretty easy to get started.”
McCartney and his wife, Lais, grew up in Greenfield and graduated from Greenfield-Central High School but wanted raise their family in a more rural area. After moving back to Indiana following a stint living in Texas, they purchased a large piece of property about 5 miles from the Hancock-Henry County line in Knightstown.
The rolling hills of their nearly 17-acre farm are covered in trees, making traditional farming difficult. They raise goats, chickens, turkeys and geese, sell bees and honey, and make their own soaps and other products. In 2009, they discovered tree-tapping to collect sap and dove headfirst into the sweet world of maple syrup-making.
The best trees to use are sugar maples, McCartney said, which can be found across Indiana. Beginning in late February or early March, the family taps the trees by drilling a small hole near the base of each one and inserting a spile, or a small metal peg that serves as a spout.
The sap travels through the spile and drips off into a container. The McCartney family hangs a sturdy plastic bag from the peg to collect the sap, which looks and tastes like water when it come out of the tree.
The magic happens once it’s heated.
McCartney built an evaporator about 50 yards from the home, using some old bricks and a discarded chimney. Once the sap is collected from the nearly 100 taps around the property, it is dumped into a stainless steel pan and boiled for several days.
As the water burns away, the liquid thickens and darkens. Once it reaches an amber color, the McCartneys carry it into the house to finish the evaporation process and start bottling.
It’s a tedious process with a small yield.
“You have to burn off about 40 gallons of water to get just 1 gallon of syrup,” McCartney explained. “Once it’s done, you have to filter it to get any extra stuff out, but it’s ready to (eat). You don’t add anything to it.”
The sap cycle is the most successful on days when the temperature dips below freezing at night and rises above freezing during the day, meaning the season lasts only a few weeks. Sap no longer can be used for syrup once trees start to bud because it turns yellow and develops a bitter taste.
And who wants bitter waffle topping?
The McCartneys will harvest more than 200 gallons of sap this year, but that averages out to just 5 gallons of syrup. Once it’s bottled, they sell it (and a handful of other products) at the Hancock County Farmers Market.
The maple syrup business trickles down to create needs on other areas of the farm.
The McCartneys use their goats’ milk and chickens’ eggs on a daily basis, 13-year-old Grace McCartney said, especially when they make many, many homemade waffles.
Since the process is a fairly simple one, maple syrup-making has become popular, said Dave Hamilton, president of the Indiana Maple Syrup Association. The group has 112 registered members, but far more Hoosiers have opted to tap their own trees.
“Most people (start making maple syrup) because they just want a hand in making their own products,” Hamilton said. “It’s become a lot easier, too, with the development of different tubing and equipment.”
Most of what the McCartneys have learned about making maple syrup is self-taught. McCartney said he and his wife read books and did some online research about what it takes to harvest the sap, boil it down to syrup and the requirements for bottling and selling it. The rest was trial and error.
“There is not a lot you can do to mess up maple syrup,” McCartney said. “If you boil too much water off, it will crystallize and become sugar. If you boil too much off, you risk it molding once you bottle it. But even then, it’s like cheese; you can just scrap it off and still use the rest.”
McCartney said that their operations have been so successful because syrup making can be done with just a few buckets, a large pan and a nice fire. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
“I’ve seen people drill a hole into the tree and hang a nail (with) a milk jug from it,” he said. “You can be a low-tech as you want. The money you invest just makes it easier and faster.”