Image Caption – Clockwise from lower left: Students in the Schoharie Central School District use provided “Sap Sacks” to collect sap from a tree; Mayfield Central School District students venture out before the snow melted to collect sap; the third-place plaque awarded to Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in the 2018 statewide competition; a student at The Charlton School filters the sap while pouring it into the evaporator; and bottles of the first batch of maple syrup produced recently by The Charlton School students. (Photos, clockwise from lower left, courtesy Jake Palmateer, Betsy DeMars, John Antoski and 2 by Robert Thorpe).
At Northeast schools, it’s not uncommon for students — under a teacher’s guidance — to venture outside after a long winter, tap sugar maple trees and then boil down the sap to make maple syrup.
In 2017, it became even more fun.
That’s when New York Agriculture in the Classroom started its Schoolyard Sugaring Maple Syrup Contest. This year, no fewer than six Capital Region schools are registered to participate and vie for best-tasting syrup honors.
Deadline to enter the contest was Feb. 19. There are three divisions: elementary school, middle school and high school.
The local schools entered are Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, The Charlton School, Schoharie High School, Mayfield Junior-Senior High School, Middleburgh High School and A.W. Becker Elementary School in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District. Statewide, 105 schools are entered.
There are categories for best-tasting syrup and photography. “And this year there’s a new innovation category,” said Sarah Peavey, a program assistant at NYAITC. “We created a challenge to deter animals from affecting the sugaring. Like a squirrel chomping on [plastic] tubing.“
Schools have until April 13 to submit their entries and results are announced by the first week in May, at the latest.
So the students are busy. For some, remote learning due to the pandemic has interfered with their maple sugaring effort, but they forge ahead.
We checked in to see how it’s going at some of the local schools.
The Charlton School
When contacted just over a week ago, science teacher Patrick Clear said the students in grades 9 through 12 had boiled down their first seven gallons of sap and made a couple of 8-ounce bottles of syrup.
“We like to make three different batches and have the kids taste them and see which one tastes the best,” said Clear, noting that they hope to send in their contest entry before spring break at the school in early April.
A year ago, Clear and his students were eager to enter the contest. “We intended to. Everybody was excited,” he said. “We got our packet from New York State Ag in the Classroom.” But the pandemic hit and the school went fully remote.
So this year’s effort is especially welcome. So far, the students have taps on seven trees.
Robert Thorpe, who maintains the grounds at the school, helps out and takes photos of the project.
“Bob has been tapping the trees here for about 25 years, but they never did anything with the sap,” said Clear, who is coming up on three years at The Charlton School. “He’s got some big maple trees here that he likes to tap; he knows from over the years that they are good sap producers.”
“I call them my old historic sugar maples,” said Thorpe. “I would just throw a bucket up on a tree, tap it — more for a visual than anything, near a walkway for people to look at. I maintain the grounds, so I don’t have time to be doing all of [the processing]. Patrick has taken it a step further, which I think is great.”
Clear said the formula is pretty standard for making maple syrup: Cold nights, warm days and then collecting 40 gallons of sap to boil down for each gallon of syrup.
They’ve been collecting the sap in metal buckets with lids (“It’s nice to see the buckets. That’s kind of old-school,” said Thorpe). Students test the sap with a hydrometer right out of the bucket and measure the sugar content. “You can taste the sugar difference right there,” said Clear.
They then filter out some of the impurities — insects, bark, that type of thing —and boil it down in an evaporator.
And how did the first finished product taste?
“The first batch came out as a golden; it’s lighter on flavor, subtle and very sweet,” said Clear, more or less implying that they were just getting started. “The ambers and the darks have a stronger flavor.
“I’d like to get at least two different grades as we’re boiling down. If they get a golden and an amber, they’re very different in color and very different in taste. The darker color has more maple flavor.”
In the end, he said, the result is up to Mother Nature.
“It’s really dependent on the trees, the amount of sap they’re producing. With each tree the sap is going to be different, the amount of sugar content the tree is producing that day. Each day can be totally different,” said Clear.
Not lost on the students is that sense of what nature provides. A sign hanging from one of the trees reminds them of that (see photo above).
Thorpe said he was walking down a back road in Vermont one day. “I saw this sign and I just loved it. So I took a photograph of it and had it laminated. It’s what the trees do for us — build houses, give us maple syrup.
“The sign to me is very important. It gives voice to the trees,” added Thorpe.
And the trickiest part of the syrup-making process?
“It’s at the end of the boil,” said Clear, “when you’re boiling the sap down, because you have to keep a constant high temperature. When you get to 219 degress, you’re done. Keeping track of the temperature until you get to that exact point, that’s the trickiest part. It can burn very quickly.
“As you boil the water off, the boiling temperature is rising. Getting to the first boil at 212 degrees is really easy, but getting to 219 is a really long and slow processs. That’s where things can go wrong very quickly.”
Their goal is to make a few gallons of syrup, maybe enough to bottle a few cases of 8-ounce bottles. While some students do the production, some do the label design and marketing. And if they offer the syrup for sale at the school’s summer farmer’s market, profits could possibly go toward the school gala or something else.
“The kids can decide what to do with the profits,” said Clear.
Clear summed up the maple tree-tapping project.
“Most of the students do enjoy getting out of the classroom and doing hands-on science. That’s big for us here at the school, hands-on science.
“It’s been fun, and it’s a lot of work. We try to make it inetresting for the kids. Nobody wants to be bored in school.”
And the reward when they’re all done?
“A pancake breakfast has been suggested. I think that’s on the horizon for the students,” he said.
Mayfield Central School District
Jill Miller, a family and consumer science (FACS) teacher in the Mayfield district, said she is working with about 60 seventh-grade students on the maple sugaring project. She is also working with students from the Canajoharie district.
“We have tapped six trees alongside the Mayfield Junior-Senior High athletic fields,” she said. “As far as I know, this is the first time Mayfield has ever done this before.”
Miller said the students have been busy collecting sap.
“We have started to boil,” she said. “We boil down the sap as it is collected to make it more manageable.”
When contacted again a few days ago, after the stretch of unseasonably warm weather, Miller said, “The sap flow has increased with the low and high temperatures recently. There was an estimated 10 gallons of sap collected [Tuesday]” she said.
“Overall, the students are excited about the project. For most it is something they have never done before,” she said.
“It gives them time outside the building — with an adult — and away from their Chromebook. Everyone in class wants to see how much sap their classmates return with. I’m not sure who cannot wait to see and taste our final project more: the students or I.
“If it wasn’t for COVID, I would have my students make pancakes from scratch, and have maple syrup on top, of course — it is FACS class!
“The final product will be shared with the 7th grade, and others,” she said.
Schoharie Central School District
Taylor Bogardus, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, said students are in-person five days a week, with some choosing the remote option.
“We launch Google Meet on a mobile device to include our remote students when we go outside to tap, collect, etc., and they can see the boiling operation in the class on our daily Google Meets,” she said.
“The class participated in a virtual field trip to learn about syrup collection and they also completed a maple story/song/comic activity where they had to write or draw out the history/process of mapling.”
Tapping supplies were provided from NY Ag in the Classroom for the Schoolyard Sugaring Contest.
Bogardus said Schoharie uses the provided “Sap Sacks” — a plastic 4-gallon bag that hangs on a galvanized sap bag holder which is attached to the tap in the tree.
“They’re super convenient compared to buckets that need lids,” said Bogardus. “All that needs replacing each year is the bags if the edges become torn.”
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District
Just a couple of miles east of The Charlton School is Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, where K-12 Social Studies Director John Antoski has had students involved in the maple sugaring competition for a few years.
Well, more than involved.
In 2018, they stood out, capturing third place statewide for their syrup. They even traveled to the State Fair to accept their plaque, which is on display at the school. Their entry won for “Grade A, Golden Color, Delicate Taste.”
Antoski explained that in 2018 he offered an elective course called “The History of Agriculture” at the school, and one of the activities for the class was to enter the statewide contest. That’s how things got started.
The students involved in the project at BH-BL this year are mainly 9th graders. This year’s contest has been somewhat of a challenge with COVID-19, Antoski noted, as restrictions have made it hard to coordinate getting the students together.
They’ve tapped a tree on school property and can do more if needed. The kids are taught what to look for in a sugar maple and have watched a video series on all aspects of maple syrup production produced by Cornell.
“We usually get 5 to 10 gallons of sap to boil down for our sample, and a little to share,” he said. “We will get a sample boiled down before the deadline.”
He said they planned to boil some this past week. “And depending on the outcome of the finished product, we will boil again if needed,” Antoski said.
“It depends on a lot of factors, including the weather, temperatures, tree type, timing of boil, etc., but we try to make sure the density is correct along with it being clear as possible and having an excellent flavor.
“Part of the competition requires submission to be graded by us, so it also needs to closely match what grade of syrup we think it is when we submit it,” said Antoski.
“I think the kids who are involved enjoy it and see it as a fun competition. Plus they learn a little bit as well,” Antoski said.
“We can always expand on it too. The contest allows us to partner with actual local maple producers to increase our knowledge base and assist.
“Also, these types of activities allow the kids to see how agriculture is intertwined with every subject area,” he said, noting that maple syrup production alone crosses over into math, science and social studies as well as technology and family and consumer sciences.
“I plan to use the maple syrup contest and integrate it in with my economics class that I currently teach, to work on a cost/benefit analysis regarding if we wanted to expand our syrup production properly, what would we need to do in order to create it as a fundraising opportunity at our school,” Antoski said.
Antoski pointed out that NY Agriculture in the Classroom “has been a great partner for us at BH-BL. They are excellent resources for all levels in schools,” he said. “They also supply professional development opportunities for teachers as well as equipment for the maple contest.”
Established in 1985, New York Agriculture in the Classroom is a partnership of Cornell University, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, the state Education Department, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York Farm Bureau.