Sweet innovation

Organic farmers tend to be diehard traditionalists, championing agricultural practices that would be familiar to a 19th-century homesteader equipped with a mule and a wooden plow. Newfangled techniques involving chemicals, crop specialization and mechanization are considered suspect by the softly treading sustainable set, whose members thrill to rich compost and heirloom melons.

Taste test: How good is the maple syrup produced at Maple Creek Farm in Yancey County? Walker, son of farm proprietors Molly Nicholie and Richard Sanders, appears ready to testify. Courtesy Maple Creek Farm.

Finding harmony with the land and its heritage was pretty much the plan when Molly Nicholie and her husband, Richard Sanders, in 2007 moved to an 106-acre farm that bookends Lickskillet Road in Yancey County. Nicholie, an Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project staffer and self-described “wannabe farmer,” and Sanders, formerly a forestry supervisor at Warren Wilson College, figured they’d raise a few pigs, plant a big garden and generally steer clear of the radically new, never-been-tried-before stuff—and then Sanders counted the property’s sugar maple trees.

“After I walked around the first couple of times, I realized how many there were,” says Sanders, 29. “John [Swann, co-owner of Greenlife and owner of the farm] knew there were sugar maples, but he didn’t know how many.”

Sanders found more than 100 strong, healthy trees, and last year tapped half of them to produce the state’s only commercially produced maple syrup. It was a mad-genius move that provoked double—heck, triple and quadruple—takes when Maple Creek Farm debuted its wares at Burnsville’s tailgate market.

“People were like. ‘You made this? In Burnsville?,’” Nicholie, 32, recalls. “It’s been interesting because so many Northerners are skeptical. But we’ve had great testimonials from Yankees. Someone from Vermont said, ‘This is the best syrup I’ve ever had, but don’t tell anyone.’”

Still, Nicholie admits, “Maple syrup isn’t what came to mind when I thought about farming.”

Perhaps if Nicholie had found a tract of land in upstate New York, she would have made a beeline for the sap bucket. But maple syrup has long been dismissed in the southern mountains, even though conditions are amenable to making it.

“Everyone says you can’t do it around here, it’s not cold enough,” Sanders says. “But we got more sap here last year than they got in Vermont, and Vermont had a good season. We needed freezing nights and cold days: We put taps in the first week of February and it worked.”

The nation’s sugar maples are severely under-tapped, according to recent data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Although two billion trees in the eastern U.S. are considered “potential taps,” only 7.5 million of them are being harvested. That means that more than 99 percent of sugar maples, many of them packed with sweet sap, go untapped.

The problem in the deepest reaches of sugar-maple territory, Sanders says, is the steep, uneven terrain in which the trees are rooted. A sharply rising hillside simply isn’t compatible with the idyllic depiction of the homespun sap collector, loading his open buckets into a horse-drawn sleigh. Mountain dwellers have historically found their sweetness in sorghum cane, a plentiful crop that’s relatively easy to transform into syrup. It only takes eight gallons of cane juice to make the same amount of syrup produced by boiling down fifty gallons of maple sap.

“If you’re used to cooking molasses, you’re like, ‘This is not worth my time. I could be cooking cane,’” Nicholie says.

“It’s not part of the culture here,” Sanders adds. “It’s not like, ‘Grandpa did this, so I’m going to keep doing it.’”

While some local landowners experimented over the years with the bucket method of sap gathering (“When I told our 86-year-old neighbor about it, he said, ‘How’d you cut your notch?,’” Sanders reports), tubing systems developed in the 1970s made maple syrup a far more appealing prospect for the mountain farmer. Sanders has wrapped his trees in a web of tubes, so when the sap starts running, it will scurry down the farm’s sloping hills, headed straight for the cookhouse (known in syrup circles as a sugar shack).

Last year’s sap was processed using a propane evaporator, a finicky contraption that cost Sanders many nights of sleep. This year, the sap will be fed into a wood-fired evaporator, which experts claim imparts an especially good flavor.

“One thing I loved was the steam off the evaporator,” Nicholie says. “It’s like a maple steam bath. We could some sort of agritourism spa thing, but I wouldn’t know what to do with all the sticky people.”

Instead, Maple Creek Farm is planning to eventually offer a range of more conventional maple-based products, including maple sugar and candy. “But we have to do syrup right first,” Nicholie laughs.

“I didn’t have the right set up last year, but this year, I feel like I do,” says Sanders, who made an off-season trip to New England to study syrup-making methods. “It’s simple things like knowing what size tubing, how many trees to put on a tube. I didn’t know it was normal for tubing to freeze, so I freaked out about that. I had issues with cooking so slowly.

“And filtering,” he continues, picking up a two-ounce bottle of his syrup and jiggling it until a tiny white bubble comes into view. “There’s one of these in every little jar. This is called an eider. It was filtered, but not as well as it should have been.”

But Sanders’ litany of problems is the nit-picking of a perfectionist. The syrup—of which only a few tiny 2008 vintage bottles remain—is delicious. Unlike most mass-produced syrups, which Sanders charitably describes as “sugar water with maple flavoring,” Maple Creek Farm’s syrup’s sweetness is secondary to its robust maple taste. This subtly floral syrup’s much too good to waste on a waffle: Sanders and Nicholie advise cooking their pork sausage in it, although my experiments suggest it’s best enjoyed as a starring ingredient, eaten drizzled over oatmeal or straight off the spoon.

Maple Festival

Maple Creek Farm’s Maple Festival will be held Feb. 21 and 22. To reach the farm, from I-26, follow US 19 to the Bald Creek community. Turn left on Lickskillet Road, and follow it to the end of the pavement. For more information, call 682-0297.

More syrup will be available next month, when Nicholie and Sanders—along with their 2-year-old son, Walker—host a two-day maple extravaganza, during which visitors can watch the syrup cook, tour the sugarbush and shop: In addition to syrup, Maple Creek Farm cider and pork will also be available.
Nicholie says: “Our neighbors have farmed this valley their whole lives, so it’s great to have that resource right here, while still creating new stories with our family and our syrup.”

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