At Gateway Farm: Turning Split Wood Into Maple Syrup

If you love maple syrup as much as we do, watch how the folks at the Gateway Farm use split wood to fire the boilers in the sugar house.

Video Transcript

Welcome back to RuggedMade. I'm Jared and here, we are back at The Gateway Farm in the beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont. If you haven't seen the video from our first visit here, be sure to check that out. We came up right around Thanksgiving time. We met Trent and Abby and we got to do some log splitting. We checked out their turkeys, all of which are gone by now, and one of the most magical things about The Gateway Farm is the maple syrup that they make. So, Trent and Abby invited us to come back in the middle of the season when they're doing that and that brings us to today. The temperature is apparently perfect. The sap is running. So here we are at The Sugar Shack. We're gonna knock and see if Trent's available and see what we can learn about their maple syrup production.

Hey, good to see you, Trent. How's it going? Good. What's the good word, today? Well, you told us to come back when you were doing maple syrup. Absolutely. Abby said something about bring containers and we can take back all the syrup we want. You bet. Because there are a whole bunch of people back at headquarters who love the syrup you gave us last time. We're making plenty of it. That's great. All right. Well, we'd love to, you know, see what's going on in here. Yeah, come on in. All right. Let's go.

Yeah, so what is important about the weather, as far as the sap and…? Sunlight, 40 degree days, ish, just freestyle effect and as long as it's the springtime it'll start running. Okay, it'll run early season but right now it's running nicely. Great. So, I guess later, can we see where the sap is actually coming from? Absolutely. We're collecting it, arrowing it, processing it, and boiling it down with firewood right now and filter-pressing for as fresh as you can get right now.

So, what's going on down here? We've got a gasifying arch, so these levers throw high-powered, three-horse fan throws air into the door, into the grates, and then up in here. So, we actually gasify the wood. It's not just a conventional wood-burning system. It's throwing a lot of air to make all those sparks run around. So, right now, in this, we'll just shut these real quick without trying to stir up our fire too well but that's the fire we got right now. And, you can see that air really puts a lot of air to it.

So, now, we run a combination. The farm my father's got has a sawmill so we run a combination of the slabs that we make off of logs. All this timber was milled right on site so we continue to keep milling and the slabs that are a byproduct we use, plus split pine we split for Sugar House pine that isn't of quality to mill into logs, so gnarly or really knotty stuff we'll save and we'll cut that to 30-inch length and split that. So, we'll mix a half and half and right now my father's out of the split wood so we got to go over and get another bundle of split wood all right let's head out and do that sounds like a plan well looks like you've been busy yeah no we we moved the splitter over here mostly because we pull saw logs off of the side of the woods and we'll pull out the saw logs we keep stack them up here by the road where the truck can get them for us to move around and then we'll stockpile everything that's not of quality for saw logs and then we buck it up into lengths and this is our sugar house pipe pile and I actually brought over some house wood pile so I won't have to move the splitter too muchbut we've been cutting about 30 inches, 29-30 inches and then throw them over here and we split it a little bit finer yeah the arch smaller so it's a little bit more hot intense heat we don't want a long smoldering fire we want to have a real intense hot fire so it's a little different than what someone might want to do for heating their home where they want to stoke it stoke it twice a day yeah we like to stoke it our arch we stoke about 15 to 20 minute intervals wow and when we have little split pieces they like to go up in flames really fast and be a nice hot fire so it caramelizes that that sap fast it's almost like jumbo kindling oh yeah yeah and like I say it's mostly pine ideally we would use hard wood but we have excess of pine and we just make sure we use every bit of it so yeah how long would something like this need to sit out and get any kind of seasoning before you'd want to put in the burner well because it burns so hot we can throw some green wood in there and it really won't bother it but these logs have been sitting for two years now so we'll let them sit kind of for a year on the ground and then we'll stockpile them for the summer and just start splitting them as we need them but certainly they're just they're crispy they're a little bit wet from some snow we had and last night it rained but the arch does not bother that one bit doesn't mind it.

So, here you'll see the tubing system we call it for our gap for our collection. Yeah, everything right here. This blue inch pipe is called "mainline" and this we call "lateral line" to the main line is hung on wire from an entry from start to finish there's a wire all the way down there yeah and then we'll actually hang this blue main line by hog ties these little wires so it holds it and keeps it suspended out off the ground yeah and then the ladder lines is what goes out to every single tree so this one is just a single tap we call it because there's just one tap and this is the spout so that clear spout is this year this is the last year's pink one that we use we try to change every year so if you walk up to a tree you know that the color that you're not using is last year's so this is a quarter inch spile and we'll drill a quarter inch hole and then we'll use that tapping hammer and we'll tap on it until you can hear it kind of set itself it'll go when it actually sets so right now you can see that the weather is actually making this tree run nicely and there's the sap actually getting extracted from the tree right now and this is why today was a good day to come up and see this right beautiful weather perfect this is called a precision tapper and it allows us to have even pressure all the way around the tree so that we drill the hole square and straight and then it's spring-loaded so when we go on our back drill it pulls it out spring-loaded to make a nice clean hole and extracts all the solders from it and then we're going to the next and we do that right now we're doing that 12 500 times so 12 500 of these little taps of those and then we go back through we're on our third round of checking every single tree to make sure the vacuum's up so these main lines we actually have valves on the bottom you shut the valve off when the when the sap's running and the vacuum is on you shut the valve off and if you wait 10 15 seconds sometimes 20 seconds and you open the valve if you hear a hiss of air it means there's a leak and it's transferring the vacuum if it's opened and it's quiet then you're good to go and you can start walking the next one now what might cause a leak an air leak like that squirrels nibblers yeah gray squirrels, red squirrels, porcupines, woodpeckers, sometimes human error will drill a dead tree or will drill a tree that has a scar on it or like a seam and you'll pull out dead wood not knowing you can typically know because it won't be nice white wood it'll be brown or dead or spongy or hollow so human error happens too unfortunately.

Can you reuse the same hole? Nope. I mean, you can't because it'll heal over. Here's some actual last year holes and two-year-old holes that started to heal over.

How many feet of hose are you running all over this place? There's a belt in these woods. Not where we haul from but these woods, there's about e86,000 feet of this inch pipe. Wow. And, there's 26,000 or 28,000 feet an inch and a half and two inch pipe and then to do my quick math there were seven pallets which had 60 rolls of 500, so there's 210,000 feet of this green lateral line in these woods. It seems like you get some good exercise because I'm looking up your hill here. Oh, that's some serious grade. Yeah, plenty of exercise and you've got to walk every line multiple times to fix it, to tap it, and then to chase vacuum leaks which is three, four, maybe five times. Three if we're lucky. Five times, six times if we've got a bad season of critters and and, you know, problems and then we go back through at the end of the season and pull every spout.

Great. Well, why don't we head up the hill and check out a few more spots? Get some exercise for the day. All right, so Trent's going to be showing us a little bit of how this process works. Try to tell us what room we're in and what some of this gear does. So, we call this the RO Room, mostly because it's insulated because of this piece of equipment. It's called a "reverse osmosis" and we can't let any of it freeze because of the pumps and the membranes that are in it. But, to start with, we start over here. There's a vacuum you can hear in the background running right now and that's putting vacuum to the whole system. So, right here I'll show you is that's the sap coming in right now to this releaser so 30 400 taps and 5200 taps or so are each on those lines and then when this fills up the pump will kick on put in our silo for long term storage which long term right now is only a couple hours the silo will hold ross app which is two percent you know one point five to two percent sugar content and we'll run it through the RO which puts it under pressure so just so I'm clear on kind of where we are in the overall process is this basically coming right out of the trees this is coming right out of the trees okay so the tree is filling the spout which goes through the tubing to the main lines and the main lines all come here okay so now this sap that's coming in here was in the tree maybe 30 minutes ago at most all right so what's with the hot tubs so right here these two swimming pools so this is concentrated sap about six percent a full tank full that we're gonna arrow again as we're boiling and then over here this is what we call the permeate which is pure H2o there's no there's some impurities, I mean, a little bit but this is as close to pure water as we get.

Did this get squeezed out of the sap? This gets squeezed out and we save it because it's the best thing to clean with. So, from here, we'll go up to the feed tank and look at the concentrated sap that's feeding to the arch. So, here we've got the concentrate tank. Just the foam for the latte. Yep, this is where you skim off the foam. The sweetener. But, this feeds the arch and right now that's the sap that's coming in out of the evaporator I mean out of the reverse osmosis. Okay, from the tank two that we were just talking to so tank two were taken out at six or seven percent sugar content running it through very fast again bringing it up to about 16 or 18 depending on where we want so that's this tank is solely to hold the sap that feeds into the arch so the RO is pushing it up here and then it's gravity and float system running down into the arch all right so here we are in the main room of the sugar house and trent is this where the magic happens this is this is the evaporator that does all the final processing of the sap that we've gone through the whole storage and concentration of so far so you keep calling this thing an arch what do you call that arch evaporator pans all of it so the arch is the actual bottom part that the fire is in and the pan sit on and the evaporator is at the hole you know the whole unit so, I mean, just maybe walk me through just the real basics this whole evaporation process. What are we really trying to do? Because, you keep talking about start with this much sap and I end up with so much syrup. We're just trying to get all the excess water out to get syrup which is technically, in the state of Vermont, 66.7% sugar and this steam away utilizes the steam we're making on our back pan by bubbling the sap and breaking the surface tension so we can boil the sap before it goes into the back pan to boil with the steam we've already created so it's all about getting that flame as much heat from that flame in contact with the syrup.

Okay, so now we're talking flame and that really gets at how we were able to get together and they're talking wood splitter. Tell us a little bit about the way you make flame versus the way some other operations would heat their arch. So, we naturally were wood fired. There's oil, there's steam, which is a whole 'nother process. It's an oil boiler that runs steam. Wood chip, there's pellet, but with our wood-fired, there's other aspects. There's natural draft, there's forced air, and this is gasification, which we actually have a three-horse, direct drive fan outside that blows through plumbing in the ground up under to grates and then the front and the back so we can adjust how much air we're smashing into that fire. So, it's just like any fire when you start blowing air into it, you'll see it start to pick up. We're putting a pile of air to this so we're getting a much more intense heat than a normal arch would get and that allows it just to boil harder and hotter all the time. So, I mean, that's one of the things that we fell in love with The Gateway Farm for is the way that they're making maple syrup with wood. It seems like it's more labor intensive. Yeah. It's more labor intensive. It's a dying breed. There's not as many wood producers. I mean, wood was just something you always had on the farm and now with sugar, and commercialized oil is just as easy. You call up a company and they come drop off an oil tank full and you turn a switch on and you're boiling and when you're done at night you shut the switch. So, wood is a niche market for us. We're going to be wood [burning] for a very long time.

Does, I mean, tell us why you like wood and does it do anything to the syrup, the final product that you put out? Yeah, so, it's a huge debate in the sugaring world. Oil-fired versus wood-fire, but personally, growing up on wood, buying oil-fired syrup before buying wood-fired syrup, there is a big difference. Wood-fired is a lot hotter. Oil fire is a lot more consistent. It's a lower temperature but it's a lot more consistent, so wood-fired has, to me personally, we'll put that on the radar. It's more of a caramelized maple flavor, again, when you do concentrated RO sap. There's a fine line of too-high concentrated and not enough maple flavors, so we've got the, you know, personal preference of where we can concentrate to with our wood to get that really sweet maple, caramelized, deep, rich flavor that we that we strive for.

Maybe we can look at the process of keeping this fire going? Absolutely. All right, so I volunteered to help stoke the arch and let's see if I can do this for my first time and keep my eyebrows where they are.

So, right here you can see the arch. Our auto automatic draw-off just turned itself on and that is finished product. So, all right. We have it set at 219.4 which is the boiling point. Generally, syrup boils seven degrees higher than water, so if water's at 212 on average, we'd be at 219 but right now we feel it's about 219.4 so [it] depends on barometric pressure and a lot of other factors right now.

So, we're drawing off. Right now we have, we're finishing this vat one, which we're filtering through our filter press. So, we're taking an air diaphragm pump pressing the syrup through all these plates and, these big plates are hollow, so we're taking any out of any impurities out of the surf. You can kind of see it's cloudy in there. We're pressing it through this filter press. So right now, it's pressing through and we're stockpiling in these barrels and you can see it's coming through clear through this hose which we're pushing into these syrup barrels which we’ll store for long-term storage.

So, [from] every barrel, we take a sample so that we can keep it with the barrel and one for our window. But, those barrels all have that grade in it and then we'll, as the barrel fills up, we'll take another sample jar and go to the next one.

And, what kind of information are you keeping track of when you take the sample? Mostly the date, what day we produced it, what barrel sequence it was, what barrel number, and the year it is, and mostly the grade, the color, and the flavor of the syrup. And, then we'll go from here later on in the season. We'll weigh everything to know exactly how many pounds of syrup are in each barrel.

All right. So, let's see what this finished product tastes like. We'll fill these up. Nice. So, this is fresh from the arch. Vermont maple syrup at The Gateway Farm. Cheers, Trent. Oh, that's so good. I think I'm gonna be in big trouble if I don't bring some of this back for the rest of the team. We'll fill them up.

So, Trent, how would you describe this batch in terms of flavor? I mean, people like me growing up drinking, you know, Grade A Amber, you know, what does that even mean? So, Vermont and the Federal Government actually changed everything to a standardized grading for everybody that produces, so we would call this “Amber Rich” now. There's no Grade A and there's no fancy. It's golden delicate, amber rich, dark robust, and very dark, very strong. So, the “Amber Rich” actually stands for amber in color, rich in taste. So, it's a lighter side of our Amber Rich. It's got a really nice, sweet, subtle maple flavor. It does. It's not very deep and robust, so it's a good, as my father would call, a good sipping syrup.

So, we just got the grand tour through the sugar house at The Gateway Farm. Thank you, Trent. Got some of this liquid gold to take home but I still had a couple of questions. I think you were mentioning that this is kind of a family tradition for you? Yeah. How did you, I mean Trent is such an expert and we couldn't even we didn't want to record some of the things that he was telling us because there's probably all kinds of trade secrets and things that he's learned over time, but where did you learn this stuff?

Just growing up doing it with my father. My mother and father, and he grew up doing it with his mother and father. Wow. So how many generations of maple syrup? If I had to guess, it was at least four but it might be five or six. I'd have to ask my father on that one, but yeah, no, growing up, our scale was a lot smaller. Three, four hundred, four, five hundred taps mostly, but just with purchasing this land and growing a family, I wanted to make a little bit more self-sufficient. So, that's why we expanded to the number we are now.

The wood, some of the wood that I was feeding into the arch was, you know, what's left after you mill? Yeah. Run logs through your mill. Yeah. So, you do the framing? I mean in terms of being built, like, [if] you guys could see this building. We're in the Sugar House. Tell us a little bit about how this building came to be because it is beautiful.

So, everything we pulled off. My father's got a skidder. We have 300 acres of woodlaw so we just kind of decided, you know, if we're going to build a Sugar House, we're going to, obviously, mill out our own wood and use it.

But, I mean, a lot of people would have gone for a corrugated metal roof and, yeah, cement. I really like old timber frame buildings and it kind of goes with our mentality of having our old Sugar House that's just behind this Sugar House. Bringing that back to life, so set it up the old-fashioned way with the old arch and a wooden gathering tank and everything just to more fit the part of, you know, family tradition, not commercialized. We're trying to be a little bit commercialized with the aspect of how much we're doing and how efficient we are, but we want to still be family tradition and family run. Yeah, I mean, you think about the syrups coming from trees on your land right into the machine and out the door it goes like this. And then, the wood, you know, you took these trees down in your land, milled them, and built a structure. Came off the land, we milled them, built them, cut it all here, put it all up here. The slab woods you were feeding the arch today were actually slab ones off of logs we pulled off our land last winter and the lumber that we used was for our new barn that we're building. So, we try not to waste too much. Yeah.

And then, what can't be built into a beautiful building like this, ends up getting burned, either to boil the maple syrup or to heat your house all winter. Absolutely. And, that's kind of, again, what brought us together. And it's been great. So glad we're able to come up for a second visit.

Now, if someone wanted to get some of this delicious syrup, where would they go? You guys have an online store, right? or follow, I think it's, The Gateway Farm Instagram. My wife takes care of all that. Great. Or, you can stop by. Yeah, absolutely! Door's open. We have a farm stand. Sugar House is open. If there's steam rolling, swing on in. Great. All right, well, so good to see you again, Trent. Thanks so much for the tour. Yeah, I think we're gonna go home and cook up some pancakes.