Farmer will continue collecting maple sap He's tapped out on fair exhibits

September 05, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The thick amber liquid reached a hard boil. Rising steam permeated the area with the distinctive aroma of maple syrup, the natural sweetener that makes pancakes taste just that much better.

When the thermometer registered 240 degrees Fahrenheit, Marie Martz took the pot off the burner and put it in a pan of water. After the syrup had cooled 20 degrees, it was ready to crystallize for pouring into leaf-shape molds to harden into maple sugar candy.

Mrs. Martz learned the skill from her father, J. Curtis Dom, 81, who is making his last trip to the Maryland State Fair to demonstrate his skills this year. Not because he's lost his touch; he's taking home eight blue ribbons and the purple championship ribbon for his maple products. But the trip from Wellersburg, Pa., nine miles northwest of Cumberland, gets harder each year.

"It's getting to be just too much to bring everything down here and spend 10 days at the fair," said his wife, Zelda, 74, explaining why after 16 years they plan to attend "just for a day or so" as visitors from now on.

Although he won't exhibit at the fair anymore, Mr. Dom said that as long as he is able, he'll tap his sugar-maple trees for their sap which, like honey, is one of the oldest known natural sweeteners. He has had any number of offers to rent his stand of sugar maples but said he has too much money invested in his business to give it up yet.

Sugar maples grow along the northern tier of states from Maine to Minnesota, and in the east from West Virginia north to Canada, which produces more maple syrup than the United States.

Indians tapped the trees for centuries in pre-Colonial days, chopping into them with hatchets to collect the sap in bark baskets. They dropped hot stones into the watery sap to condense it to syrup.

Mr. Dom estimated it takes 50 to 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. The syrup is boiled again to crystallize it into maple sugar, as the Doms demonstrate at the fair.

When European settlers arrived in America, they brought iron augers to drill the trees, wooden taps and first wooden, then metal, sap buckets. The rising sap is collected in late winter and early spring. In many areas, sap-boiling parties provided local entertainment.

The sap must be boiled once the day's collection is completed or it will sour and be useless, Mr. Dom said. Years ago, Mr. Dom made daily rounds of his 160-acre farm in a horse-drawn cart, dumping the buckets on his estimated 13,000 taps -- one to four on each tree -- into a collecting vat. "The horses would know just when to stop at each point," he said.

As in many businesses, labor-saving technological advances have virtually remade the maple syrup business.

The wood or coal fires of the old days have given way to gas or oil burners.

Instead of traveling from tree to tree each day, groups of trees are fitted with special plastic taps connected to 5/16-inch plastic tubes that carry the sap by gravity or pump to a central collection tank.

The tanks are then hauled to the cookhouse where the sap is boiled down to syrup.

Another advance, Mr. Dom said, is the refractometer, a device that checks each tree for its sugar content, much as cows are tested for butterfat content in their milk. This allows the maple farmer to cull out unprofitable trees, he said.

Mr. Dom doesn't know how many trees he taps each year, and he does not carry out a replanting program. Sugar maples are indigenous to his area.

"They just grow," he said.

A sugar maple must be at least 8 inches in diameter and about 30 years old before it can be tapped for sap, said Mr. Dom, who started making maple syrup as a child on his father's farm. The old farm adjoins his present place but is no longer in the family.

The Doms have five children, including Mrs. Martz, who lives in Arbutus. She is the only one who takes an active part, using a week's vacation each year to help her parents at the fair.

For Mr. Dom, maple farming was a sideline to his job as a heavy-equipment mechanic. He retired 19 years ago and went into the maple syrup business full time.

Last winter wasn't the best of seasons for producing good sap, )) Mr. Dom said. There weren't enough nights when temperatures went below freezing.

"Freezing and thawing controls everything," he said.

The freezing nights create a vacuum in the tree, drawing water in to mix with the sugar and form the sap.

Lorraine Gover, superintendent of the Farm and Garden Building at the State Fair, said she has already started looking for a sugar-maple farmer to succeed Mr. Dom at next year's fair. Her best bet so far is a man from Titusville, Pa.

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