Cliff Nightingale boiled down his first pan of sap into maple syrup when he was 9 years old.
“It was a little kid’s backyard operation — just strictly on my own — with my mother’s blue enamel canner on the fireplace in the backyard,” the 71-year-old recalled while standing in his expansive sugarhouse Sunday morning.
Over the years, Nightingale’s maple syrup-making production has greatly increased. He now oversees 2,200 taps on maple trees tethered by 11 miles of plastic tubing.
His evaporator, a major step up from the old enamel canner, can generate 10 to 12 gallons of finished syrup per hour.
Nightingale and his family showed off their operation to the public Saturday and Sunday as part of the Upper Hudson Regional Maple Weekend. Theirs was one of 17 sugarhouses that participated.
Maple syrup fans of all ages came to Nightingale’s farm to ask questions and sample homemade corn fritters and apple fritters swimming in sticky brown syrup.
There were even some young tree-tappers-in-training who stopped by.
The Upper Hudson Region Maple Weekend event will continue from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Click here for more information.
Participating sugarhouses include:
* Frasier’s Sugar Shack, 144 Church St., St. Johnsville, 568-7438, www.frasierssugarshack.com
* Highland Maple Farm, 954 Coach Road, Argyle, 638-8586
* Maple Valley Farm, 84 Harris Road, Corinth, 654-9752
* Mud Road Sugar House, 278 Mud Road, Ephratah, 863-6313
* Nightingale’s Maple Farm, 4888 Jersey Hill Road, Amsterdam, 882-9334
* Peaceful Valley Maple Farms, 116 LaGrange Road, Johnstown, 762-0491
* Sugar Mill Farm LLC, 2469 State Route 29, Greenwich, 692-2486
* Toad Hill Maple Farm, 139 Charles Old Road, Thurman, 623-4744, www.toadhillmaple.com
* Valley Road Maple Farm, 190 Valley Road, Thurman, 623-9783
Colton and Mackenzi Dow of Glen have been helping their parents, John and Melanie Dow, to start a syrup-making operation.
“We started doing just a little bit this year. We tapped four trees,” said John Dow. “We’re going to try to get a little bit bigger next year.”
Colton, 6, knows all about how tapping trees works. “We get a hammer to put those in,” he said, the word “spiles” eluding him. “We, like, put two on each tree and syrup and sap comes out.”
Mackenzi, 4, added, “We put a metal bucket and we put the top on till it fills and then we put it in a big bucket and then we boil it.”
Right now, the Dows boil their sap in a turkey fryer, but hope to graduate to a small evaporator next season.
A poster on the wall in Nightingale’s sugarhouse points out that it takes between 30 and 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Nightingale said he normally averages about 700 gallons of syrup a year. Last season, he noted, was far from normal. Unseasonably mild temperatures brought production to an abrupt halt on March 12, rather than around the first of April as in a typical year.
His syrup yield came in at only 492 gallons.
This season’s not over yet, but Nightingale’s not optimistic about production. So far, he’s produced 286 gallons of syrup.
“We’ll get at least one more run, but we’re nervous about this. With no snow on the ground, it can just turn warm and it’s all over with, and every day that it stays cold, it increases the chance that it won’t turn cold again, and we need that alternating freeze-thaw. Without that, there’s nothing,” he said.
Bruce Frasier, owner of Frasier’s Sugar Shack in St. Johnsville, is more optimistic about the season.
Another participant in the Maple Weekend event, he said steady crowds of visitors came to his sugarhouse Saturday and Sunday to see how maple syrup is made.
Last year’s sugaring season was terrible, he said, but he called this year “normal.”
“We’ve made 250 gallons but hope to make 750; that’s my goal,” he said in a phone interview, admitting that he might be shooting a little bit high.
Last year, the sap stopped running from Frasier’s 3,500 tap holes March 20.
“I think it’s going to go into April this year,” he predicted.
It was warm in Nightingale’s sugarhouse Sunday morning, thanks to a wood fire burning in a rusty old oil tank that’s been converted into a wood stove. Outside, the temperature was 27 degrees — too cold for sap to run.
“We need another 10 degrees for it to start to run,” Nightingale explained.
Because of that, his hulking, shiny metal evaporator stood cold and quiet.
Chatter and laughter from Nightingale’s family and their visitors made up for that though.
The Olsen kids, Lily, 8; Emmit, 3 and Evan, 6, of Saratoga Springs, were busy scraping the last of the syrup from paper bowls that a few minutes earlier held fritters.
Lily, dressed in a green sweater and matching green go-go beads, said she thought coming to the farm was a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
“We always come every year because we enjoy seeing how the syrup is made and we always have it with our pancakes,” she explained.
Although she’ll turn 9 in April — the same age Nightingale was when he started making his own syrup — she’s still a little bit shaky on exactly how sap turns into to the sweet treat she enthusiastically licked off her plastic spoon.
“First they tap the trees and they get the syrup from it and then, I forget,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t know much, but I know a bit.”