It’s time to tap maple trees at Misty Maples Sugar House

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Dave Hively and his family usually tap more than 800 maple trees each year on their farm, in Mahoning County's Green Township. He estimates that some of the maples are 250 to 300 years old, and it has been difficult to replace trees lost to windstorms or other causes. (Barbara Mudrak photos)

There’s some folklore about when to tap maple trees, like the return of the red-winged blackbirds, or when the downy woodpecker starts drumming.

But Dave Hively, whose family has been doing it for six generations in Mahoning County’s Green Township, says the timing of tree tapping is “100% dependent on weather.”

Temperature game

Haley Shoemaker, program coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension, in Mahoning County, put it another way: “Mother Nature is in charge of sap flow.”

When nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime highs reach the 40s, it’s pretty much ideal for maximum sap flow, she said.

Last year, spring seemed to come early; temperatures warmed and didn’t fluctuate much between daytime and nighttime, so sap flow was minimal. This year’s cold snap in February had the same effect.

The rising and falling temperatures create negative and positive pressures in the trees, Shoemaker said. Below-freezing temperatures create a negative pressure within the tree, sucking the sap down into the roots and also allowing the roots to absorb water from the soil.

The higher daytime temperatures create positive pressure, pushing sap up from the roots.

Shoemaker, her husband, Austen, and their friend, Jon Dye, usually tap between 250 and 300 trees in Mahoning and Columbiana counties every year. They take the sap to Hively to boil down into syrup. He does it on shares, splitting the final product half and half.

Getting started

evaporator at Misty Maples Sugar House
The evaporator at Misty Maples Sugar House is used to boil sap into maple syrup, which must be between 66 and 69% sugar in order to be salable. Sap usually contains less than 2% sugar, but reverse osmosis raises that to about 18%, making for less boiling time.

For Hively, a son and daughter and their spouses, and two grandsons, the day to start tapping was Feb. 27. However, it wasn’t just tapping trees but getting the reverse-osmosis machine running, and the pans in the huge evaporator soaked in permeated water, and the tubing between the trees cleaned with a 35% peroxide solution that left burn marks on Hively’s fingers.

The work of that first day left the 72-year-old Hively feeling like he’d been “rode hard and put away wet. But when it’s time to get started, you better get moving. You snooze, you lose,” he said.

The tapping of trees that weekend meant slogging through mud and fallen leaves while carrying his equipment. Hively tries to keep in mind that at this particular time, mud is good for maples.

“They need a lot of mud,” he said. “If it dries out, the sap stops flowing.”

As he drills the holes at just the right upward angle, he is careful to avoid last year’s holes, which have sealed over. If the new holes are too close to the old ones, the tree will get dark stains, otherwise known as dead wood.

Using a plastic hammer, he inserts a one-way valve in the hole that allows the sap to flow out, but not back in. That’s because “the tree giveth and the tree taketh away,” he explained.

If the vacuum pump goes off, the tree can suck sap out of the tubing, perhaps from as far as 10 feet away. After the valve comes the plastic tap, which immediately starts dripping.

Hively is quick to hook the tubing to the tap, but checks first to make sure it hasn’t been chewed by squirrels or raccoons, which means it must be replaced.

He estimates there are “a couple of miles” of mainline tubing, and between three and five miles of branch lines. The tubing is hooked up to a vacuum pump of the kind used in dairy operations.

Hively said the tubing eliminated the need for at least four workers in the maple operation — workers strong enough to carry two five-gallon buckets full of sap weighing about 50 pounds each.

The vacuum machine pulls the sap from the lines into a 2,000-gallon tank, or perhaps one of several smaller tanks. Vacuuming goes four times faster than the old method of pumping sap into the tanks, he said.

Reverse osmosis

The sap is then sent through the reverse osmosis machine, which forces it through a membrane with 400 pounds of pressure. The sugar can’t pass through the membrane, leaving the sap with a higher percentage of sugar.

The sap undergoes reverse osmosis a second time before going into the evaporator to be boiled. Hively said the reverse osmosis equipment was a costly investment 15 years ago, but it has been worth it.

It reduces the amount of wood needed to power the evaporator to a fraction of what it was “before RO,” as he calls it. And it allows sap to be boiled into syrup in a fraction of the time.

His father could only boil between 15 and 20 gallons of sap a day, which didn’t make much syrup. With RO, they can produce 30 gallons of finished syrup an hour, he said.

The finished product, i.e. maple syrup, needs to be more than 66 and less than 69 on the Brix scale. One degree on the scale is equal to one percent sugar, so maple syrup is actually between 66 and 69% maple sugar. The sap starts out somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5% sugar, so it takes more than 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.

Family business

Hively worked for General Electric in Austintown for 33 years. When offered a buyout, he decided to take it and become a full-time tree farmer and maple producer, like three generations of his family before him.

“It’s not enough to live on, but it’s a good retirement income,” said his wife, Nancy, who is a retired registered nurse.

They are helped in the enterprise by son, Todd, and his wife, Dani; daughter, Jodi, and her husband, Shaun; and grandsons Brock, 9, and John, 10.

“They’re the sixth generation,” Hively said of his grandsons. “I’m really proud of the work they’re doing.”

The family sells maple syrup at their farm, which they call Misty Maples Sugar House, and have a loyal clientele. The Parks Garden Center and the Millstone Farm and Garden Store also carry their products, but the bulk of their syrup is sold at the White House Fruit Farm store.

The jugs in which their syrup is sold have a sticker that says “International Maple Competition Best of Show 2009 and 2011.” Maple syrup used to be graded by its color: Light, medium, dark, and Grade B, which was really dark, and was considered commercial grade. Now the syrup is graded on taste, Nancy explained.

In fact, the names of the grades end with the word taste. There’s golden delicate, amber rich, dark robust, and “very dark, strong taste.”

Misty Maples’ syrup won for golden delicate and dark robust in the competitions, which include producers from all over the United States and Canada.

Maple tour

The farm is on the list of stops for the annual Northeast Ohio maple tour and the Ohio Maple Madness statewide tour.

Both tours were scheduled for last weekend and this coming Saturday and Sunday. Except the Hively family tries not to work on Sunday, so Misty Maples will just receive visitors on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Those visitors will get a tour of the operation, as well as a treat of ice cream doused in maple syrup. “It’s really good, ” Hively said of the concoction. “That’s how we get them hooked.”

The season that started at the end of February will last until the trees start to bud. Again, that depends on the weather, usually a week of days in the 60s and 70s.

Soft maple trees bud first, while the hard maples take longer, Hively said. But once that happens, he quickly pulls the plug “because buddy syrup tastes nasty.”

How much syrup the farm will produce in 2021 is a question he can’t answer, at least not now.

“People ask me what kind of season it’s going to be,” Hively said. “I say, ‘Ask me in April.'”

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