Deerfield Sugarhouse Prepares for Season

By Patrick Hoff

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Kenneth “Chip” Williams IV knows more than a little bit about the maple sugar industry. A fifth generation maple sugarhouse operator, Williams has been around the industry for his entire life.

The outside of the sugarhouse looks like the typical farm building on the side of a western Massachusetts road. Stepping out of the car, the air smells of maple and tempts people to enter the restaurant.

Inside, the Williams family runs a restaurant where they serve breakfast foods to accompany their maple syrup, which is produced in the back using a variety of machines. A reverse osmosis machine and an evaporator both work extract water out of the sap so it can be boiled into syrup. In later stages of operation, the reverse osmosis machine, “saves a lot of energy and time,” according to Williams.

To save energy, the Williams Farm Sugarhouse has acquired new machines which use natural gas instead of oil for power. Williams hopes that using energy efficient natural gas will save on energy costs for the farm. The sugarhouse used to burn 20 gallons of oil per hour.

To fund the new equipment, Williams said that he applied for grants from the state and had to go through inspections that proved that the new machines would make the sugarhouse more energy efficient.

A new pipeline system was also installed by Williams to tap into maple trees located in West Deerfield.

“The maple industry as a whole has been strong the past few years,” Williams said, despite warm weather during the past few winters. A press release from the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs said that maple sugaring is dependent on freezing nights and above freezing days to make the sap flow through the pipelines to the sugarhouse.

“Generations ago, sugaring season would always start in March,” Ed Parker, president of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, said in the press release. “Today, producers have to be more aware of the weather. I’ve been tapping for 30 years and we are seeing the season generally start a week earlier. While we’ve certainly had a more favorable winter this year, everything depends on the weather in March.”

Last year, the early arrival of warm temperatures made most of the maple sugaring season too warm for some sugarhouses, which resulted in a significant drop in maple syrup production, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We were done, but anyone up north was caught off guard,” Williams said, adding that the maple syrup produced during the 2012 season up north had a taste to it that “wasn’t a maple flavor.”

Williams said that the crop last year was a bit below average but it was not drastic. The warm weather had the biggest affect for the Williams Farm Sugarhouse in their restaurant, which was more crowded than usual earlier in the season because people were outside doing yard work due to the warmer weather.

The Williams Farm Sugarhouse produces about 2,500 gallons of maple per year, according to Williams, with the season beginning at the end of February and continuing until the first week of April, giving the sugarhouse about 6 weeks to tap into trees. Williams said that he knows of some people in northern Vermont who begin tapping into trees in January to get better sap and combat the effects of warmer temperatures.

It takes 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, according to Williams, due to the large amount of water in the sap and only 2 percent sugar. Williams added that not all of the syrup that they sell comes directly from their sugarhouse as they buy some raw sap from other places to turn into syrup.

Williams said they only drill into each maple tree once a year to prevent damage to the tree that could make it unusable in future seasons.

“No one cares about maple trees more than we do because we want it to last,” he said. Williams compared taking sap from a tree to a person giving blood, making the point that when a person gives blood, they still have enough blood left in them to keep living and supporting themselves.

“We take a very small percentage of sap from the tree,” he added.

A healthy tree can produce sap for maple sugaring for over 100 years if proper care is taken, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The Williams Farm Sugarhouse is one of 300 maple syrup producers in Massachusetts, according to the release. Only 13 states and Canada produce maple, according to Williams.

“Maple syrup production is very important to the Massachusetts agriculture economy,” Environmental Affairs Undersecretary Philip Griffiths said in the release. “In addition, the industry preserves more than 13,000 acres of land, helping keep Massachusetts green across the board.”

Patrick Hoff can be reached at [email protected]