{know your farmer} Mountain Winds Farm

MEET OUR MAPLE SYRUP FARMER: MOUNTAIN WINDS FARM

  • Farmer: Randy Grippin
  • Location: Berne, NY
  • Produces: Light and Dark Maple Syrup, Maple Cream and Candy, Pastured Eggs and some berries/vegetables.
  • # Acres: 140
  • 55,000 linear SF of pipeline
  • 1291 taps hung with tension wire, on 1291 trees of Sugar and Black Maple
  • In Business: 6 years
  • # Employees: Family only, with friends helping occasionally

We invited interested parties to come on our tour of Mountain Winds Farm a couple of weeks ago, and the kids remained rapt with attention, even without knowing maple candy would be offered at the end. The Grippin Family began farming this beautiful patch of land in Berne, NY in 1961 when Randy was five years old. They had turkeys, ducks, geese, cows and pigs. Randy began maple syrup production just 6 years ago with only 50 pails and an outdoor cooker, yielding about 120 gallons of syrup, and he currently has about 200 pastured chickens. The operation has expanded slowly over the years to now having over 1200 taps, a sugar house, 55,000 linear SF of pipeline that he and his brother hung all themselves, yielding over 500 gallons of syrup this year. Immediately upon arriving, we hopped into a trailer connected to a tractor, and Randy drove us the bumpy ¾ mile out to the sugar bush to show us the pipelines and explain how sap is extracted from the Sugar and Black Maple trees. (Fun fact: Any species of Maple can be tapped, such as Box Elder, Red Maple or Hickory.)

First, a 1/8” check-ball tap (which keeps the sap in the line after it leaves the tree) is hammered carefully into the tree. The tap can be moved in 4-5 inch sections each season over the 100 year life of the tree without affecting its longevity or integrity. Then the tap is connected to the sap line. Randy recently installed a vacuum booster, which keeps the sap from degrading by helping it to maintain an even temperature as it flows more quickly through the lines, (it increased his yield by 20%). Sap only runs under certain weather conditions, optimum flow temperature is 20 degrees at night, 40 during the day, with the necessity of a cold winter with a late warming in Spring. After the trees bud, the sap isn’t viable as syrup any longer. We had a warm spell in March this year, which took 6 weeks off the production season (and means real maple syrup is going to probably get scarce and more expensive before the end of the year when maple farmers begin to run out of their stores).

The sap travels to a large tank a few hundred yards away from the sugar house, and when that is full, it is ready to be made into syrup. There are three storage tanks in total, the last one next to the evaporation building. This is where the magic happens.

“I can’t make syrup without Rock and Roll.” I understand where Randy’s coming from. When you’re creating something that requires precision, attention and intuition, sometimes you just have to “surrender to the flow” to get it right. Sap becomes syrup at exactly 7.1 degrees over boiling (which varies minutely according to atmospheric pressure). If the sap is just a fraction over or under, it is not viable for sale. Randy has a temperature gage he sets, checks and resets constantly, in order to ensure the correct sap/syrup temp is maintained. The heating tank is wood fired, the steam escapes through vents in the roof.

A small amount of syrup at one time is fed into a tank in the “clean room” so that its density can be checked and adjusted. It is then run through a filter press, with a cake made of food-grade diatomaceous earth sandwiched between two papers to remove tiny impurities. After that, the syrup is ready to be bottled or reduced further into candies. The kids were all over the samples Randy provided.

Aside from uncooperative weather, a maple farms’ greatest enemy is invasive species like the emerald ash borer that spread like wildfire from moving cut trees out of their immediate home vicinity. 38 gallons of sap yield only one gallon of syrup, and just two gallons per hour are produced at one time. When it’s time to cook the sap, a maple farmer works furiously day and night, hopefully with the help of family and friends. Randy’s syrup tastes so delicious, that our daughter went so far as to hide “her” bottle under her bed so no one else could have some, and she’s been known to sneak shots of it straight. I encourage you to do a side-by-side comparison of imitation syrup and the real thing if you are on the fence. I guarantee you’ll never go back, and you just might drench your pancakes in a little less knowing how much effort goes into producing just one small bottle of the rich deliciousness that is the real thing.

(my camera ran out of batteries, photos courtesy of Sarah Gordon and Danika Atkins)

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