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What you need to know for 01/22/2018

‘Sugarmaker’s Companion’ good for syrup makers, eaters

‘Sugarmaker’s Companion’ good for syrup makers, eaters

Albany native Michael Ferrell's new book shows the joys and challenges of making maple syrup

In “The Sugarmaker’s Companion,” Michael Farrell masterfully shows the joys and challenges maple sugarmakers experience.

The main audience for this book is commercial sugarmakers looking to expand or improve their business. Yet Farrell’s enthusiastic, informative writing, the hundreds of color illustrations and Melissa Jacobson’s reader-friendly book design make this a worthwhile book for general readers interested in forests, sustainable economies and where their pancake syrup comes from.

Farrell, an Albany native, mixes enthusiasm and self-deprecating humor in his writing. Of his first sugarmaking effort, he writes, “After burning two of my mother’s best pots, my brother and I were banished from entering the kitchen.” The brothers continued their work on an outdoor fireplace where the ashes got into the pot, and “to say the syrup took on a smoky flavor would be an understatement!”

After this smoky start, Farrell’s training and experience in economics, finance and forestry seem to have led him to his present position, director of the Uihlein Forest, Cornell University’s Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station in Lake Placid. Farrell and his colleagues also tap some walnut and birch trees; this book describes the mechanics and business of tapping these species.

‘The Sugarmaker’s Companion’

Author: Michael Farrell

Published by: Chelsea Green Publishing (344 pages)

How much: $39.95

The book has strong, helpful business insights from Farrell’s position, his undergraduate major in economics and a brief career in finance. Farrell’s credible advice on forest health arises from his graduate study at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and forestry positions since. “Our trees and forests,” he observes, “are certainly a renewable resource and can provide us with many benefits for generations to come — but only if managed properly.”

This is not just a well-illustrated book with sharp photographs, graphs and charts. The book’s excellent design makes reading a joy; artwork is in the right place to illuminate a point in the text. Further, to support sugaring businesses making decisions about crucial tasks, Farrell has prepared Excel spreadsheet templates which are available at

Farrell is a capable and enthusiastic writer. He explains complex topics encountered in the sugaring process simply and clearly.

Farrell is particularly at the top of his writing game in the opening chapter, “Why Maple Matters.” He explains how European settlers learned sugarmaking from Native Americans. He rediscovers how Northerners used maple sugar products to protest the use of slavery in making sugar from sugarcane. He estimates the sugaring market has room to grow: “We are tapping less than one percent of the available maple trees in the nation.”

General readers can skip or skim over the technical details that commercial producers will need. Don’t skip too many details, though. As the book progresses, Farrell shows how the popular view of sugaring differs from present practice.

Sugaring with buckets on trees still occurs. However, most commercial sugarmakers use taps that are connected to plastic tubing to bring sap to the sugarhouse. The ideal is to use trees located uphill so sap flows by gravity, yet vacuum pumping is often used to gather more sap. While this might seem to hurt trees, Farrell asserts long-term study of this commonly used practice indicates it does not hurt the trees.

Before sap is boiled to make syrup, many people run it through a reverse osmosis process to remove water. This shortens the processing time, saves energy and does not change the flavor.

Even when processed with modern technologies, maple syrup is still pure and contains “minerals, nutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, phenolic compounds and more.” The high value of maple syrup helps preserve forests. The social aspect of sugaring strengthens communities, bringing people together for festivals and pancake breakfasts.

At 8 and 9:45 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, Farrell will lead two workshops at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s 32nd Annual Winter Conference at the Saratoga Hilton and City Center in Saratoga Springs. The single-day admission to attend these workshops and other programs is $100. For more information, visit, or call 271-1979, ext. 509.

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