The machines are humming in the sugaring room at Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton. Dicken Crane, the farm’s owner, is there to tell state agents how the syrup is made — but in some respects, the equipment speaks for itself.
A few logs have been thrown into the maple syrup evaporator that take up most of the room in the machine, giving a wood-smoked smell to everything in its vicinity. Long tubes dangle from that machine to a tank of tree sap overhead, sending the stuff down to be boiled after it’s been run through a reverse osmosis machine to remove water from it.
It’s an energy-efficient approach to an age-old tradition, aided by the latest innovations in maple harvesting. Crane explains the whole process in detail, and what it yields, in addition to talking about how syrup producers can make their products ethically.
Noting the critical importance of trees to the maple syrup supply, he details how harvesters make incisions into the trees to tap sap. Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, chimed in, adding that farmers now make fewer and smaller holes to preserve the health of the trees.
Pitcoff said that it’s one of the most sustainable crops there is, by nature.
“When you look at all your sweeteners, the only one that is produced from an undisturbed ecosystem is maple syrup,” Crane said, contrasting it with sugar and sugar cane.
Representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources encircle the syrup apparatus. It’s their first stop on a tour of sugaring operations in the Berkshires, part of Maple Weekend, an event meant to recognize maple producers in the state.
In a state with more than 300 sugar producers, making 70,000 gallons worth of sweet product, there’s no shortage of recognition to be had. Crane said he was grateful for the weekend and the attention it brought — bringing public awareness to the process of how food gets to their table is important, he said.
Geno DiNicola devotes a lot of time to his 'sugaring habit.' He makes maple syrup from sap harvested in his backyard
Ashley Randle, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said each year the agency tries to go to sugaring operations in different parts of the state to learn about their unique challenges, both geographical and logistical. This year, that meant a visit to Berkshire County.
“For the staff to be able to get out here and have these really organic conversations about the challenges, what the additional needs are … it’s something you can’t achieve in a phone call or an email,” Randle said.
Randle said that the visits were an opportunity to see how grant-funded equipment was being utilized, too, particularly from the state’s Climate Smart Agriculture Program. That program houses the Agricultural Energy Grant Program, which provided Crane with financial support for the reverse osmosis equipment.
“It’s really just great to be out in the field again,” Randle said. “To have the opportunity to be on the farm again and see how our grants are supporting this production and innovation.”
Crane discussed what other products he could make with sap, including maple cream and candies, and the amount of syrup he’s able to produce in a year, prompted by questions from the MDAR agents.
The state agents visited Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton, in the morning, then went on to Woodlife Ranch and Ioka Valley Farm in Williamstown.
Pitcoff organized the field visits. He said that it was important to showcase the diversity of the sugaring industry, particularly in size and approach. He noted that the majority of syrup-makers have the products as part of their larger agricultural operations, meaning they can harvest it now during the doldrums of late winter and early spring to bolster their farms during growing off-seasons.
Holiday Brook Farm is an example of that, with a full range of vegetables, livestock and hay being produced in addition to the syrup.
Pitcoff said that there has been great advancement in how trees are taken care of by harvesters, particularly in light of climate change. In spite of the innovations, he said, the core principles have remained the same for as long as sugaring has been in practice.
“You see all the equipment and the stainless steel and the reverse osmosis machine, but at the heart of it, it’s the thing it’s been for hundreds of years,” Pitcoff said.
For Crane, the visit solidified the state agency’s investment in the area.
“In Western Mass., there is a sense that the administration in Boston doesn’t know us,” Crane said. “So when somebody comes out here, really, seriously making an effort to know who you are, what your challenges are, what your potential is, it means a lot. It makes you feel good.”