Geauga County farmer looks no further than his woods to make syrup

CHARDON, Ohio — Grandma! Grandma! We have a family emergency. Can we please speak to Grandpa?

What’s wrong?

It’s an emergency, Grandma, and only Grandpa can help!

The emergency? Burton Armstrong Jr.’s grandchildren were out of his maple syrup.

Tradition

Burton Armstrong has been producing syrup or helping to produce it for as long as he can remember and that is over 60 years. In fact, the family has been producing maple syrup for five generations.

For Armstrong, his body doesn’t require blood at this time of the year, it boils with maple syrup.

Every year at this time, says wife Alice, Armstrong starts to get antsy and she knows… it’s time.

“It’s something in the spring to get you going,” Armstrong said. “It just becomes a part of you.”

In addition to the wintertime syrup, the Armstrong family farms 160 acres and produces soybeans and wheat.

Where to begin?

The process begins with the tapping of the trees — more than 200 maple trees are responsible for the sugary sweet product. Armstrong uses more than 2,100 taps to release the clear syrup into the pipelines that wind around the trees. The tubes make the woods look more like a wondrous maze than a wooded wonderland.

Armstrong won’t take all the credit for the work that goes into creating the lip-smacking liquid. His brother and sons-in-law also pitch in, giving him the help he needs to continue the tradition year after year.

Armstrong said when the weather breaks — the days start to get warmer and the nights are below freezing — that is when maple syrup production can begin.

The process

After the trees are tapped, and the tubing is snaked through the woods from tree to tree, the syrup is collected into a storage tank in the woods.

The syrup is moved from the storage tank through a pump into a storage tank on a wagon. The wagons then pull the sweet liquid back to the sugarhouse, which is made of wood that the family cut and sawed out of the woods.

This is where the magic really begins. The syrup is transferred from the storage tanks on the wagon to a storage tank outside of the sugarhouse.

Once that is filled, then the reverse osmosis system goes to work. It takes the majority of the water out of the syrup and transfers it to another tank.

Once the excess water is removed, it is time for Armstrong to go to work. The evaporator, which uses diesel fuel, is fired up and the cooker begins to heat the delicacy.

Temperature tells all

The barometer helps Armstrong determine how hot the fluid must get before boiling begins. The day the Farm and Dairy was visiting, the barometer tells Armstrong the temperature must reach 219.2 degrees for it to reach boiling.

It doesn’t take long for the sweet smells to fill the building and the steam to start rolling out of the stacks in the roof.

Armstrong keeps a close eye on the temperature gauges and the foam as it comes off the syrup. Armstrong adds a few drops of safflower oil to the syrup as it is making its way through the furnace.

Old method

Armstrong said the old method of sticking a syrup shovel into the sticky, sweet-smelling mixture just isn’t what it used to be. He explains that many producers used to stick a shovel in the mixture and how it would roll off the shovel determined how close the syrup is to being fully cooked.

Magic happens

Now when the sap reaches the magic temperature, a valve opens in the final chamber of the cooker and the syrup comes bubbling out into a metal barrel. Then the syrup runs through a filter using a cloth-type material and stored in 50 gallon drums until Armstrong is ready to pour the mixture into gallon containers.

Armstrong said his father used to use a cloth bag to filter the product but now it is all mechanical.

Armstrong said it takes less fuel now with his facility than it did in the past. He built his current sugarhouse in 2005 and the equipment was installed that year.

It used to take 30 gallons an hour of diesel fuel to complete a batch. Now it takes 10 gallons of fuel an hour and results in more syrup.

Goal: 1,000 gallons. In 2008, he produced 800 gallons; in 2009, he garnered 600 gallons and this year so far he has produced 200 gallons. However, this year seems to be odd and production has started late for many producers. Armstrong adds his goal is to produce 1,000 gallons in one season, but so far his work ranges between 600 and 800 gallons.

Armstrong said there have been some years where production would have been wrapped up by the middle of March, but this year is just a different story — it is all up to Mother Nature and there is no way around it, he adds.

Armstrong said the final syrup product is the biggest enjoyment of the process. He appreciates what color the syrup finishes, as well as the taste as a result of the process.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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