It had turned into a sunny afternoon last week as my grandson and I turned off into the wilds of northern Skagit County. We were headed to meet a farmer who has been experimenting with making big leaf maple syrup, and it was starting to feel like an adventure!
OK, so northern Skagit County isn't that wild, and it may have felt like an adventure only because it's the middle of January and I haven't been out exploring recently. Nevertheless, we were enjoying seeing a part of rural Skagit that I hadn't driven through before.
We were met by Neil McLeod, originally from Everson, who commutes from his home in Skagit County to manage Acme Farm in Whatcom County. I'd heard that McLeod had been making maple syrup and I was interested to see his operation and ask about his plans.
First, Neil stopped by the side of the road to show us a maple tree a few yards into the woods where he had equipment set up to collect sap. The tree had taps bored into several of its trunks. Plastic tubing led to a five-gallon container where the sap would be collected.
Neil says he needs cold weather during the night in order for the sap to flow the next day, so he hasn't been collecting sap recently. However he collects sap intermittently from November through February. When the sap is running, he might get five gallons per day from each tree.
Tapping doesn't harm the tree, he explained. In the spring, Neil removes the taps and by fall the bark has grown over the tapped locations. Just as when we receive a minor cut and our bodies send antibodies to fight bacteria and prevent infection, the maple trees are able to do something similar. The same tree can be tapped every year for many years.
That's only the beginning of the process, though. Next, the containers of sap are taken to McLeod's experimental "sugar shack" where they are poured into open, stainless steel boxes located over a heat source. There the sap is slowly boiled to concentrate the sugars and thicken it into a syrup consistency. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
In his first year, Neil used propane to heat the sap, but that was a slow process. This year, he tried firing with wood as well. "Wood generates a lot more BTUs of heat," he says, which speeds up the process considerably.
Next year, when he hopes to make his first commercial syrup sales, he will be testing biodiesel as a heat source for the first stage of the boiling. He will still use propane to finish off, because its slower heat gives him more final control of the syrup quality.
Finally, we went into his home, where we met his wife, Delight, and tasted some of his finished product. Depending on the sap, sometimes the syrup is light-colored and sometimes it is a rich dark reddish color. Traditionally in New England, where most U.S. syrup production takes place, the dark syrup is the most desired product.
Tastes are changing, though, and some people now prefer the taste of the lighter syrup. Neil expects to produce both varieties so his customers will have a choice.
While his experimental "sugar shack" is located near his home in Skagit County, McLeod's commercial production will be done at Acme Farm in a state-approved commercial kitchen. Most of his sap currently comes from trees at the farm, so the processing will be closer to the sap source.
When he contacted the state to find out what would be required to sell his syrup to the public, he discovered that regulators weren't sure. No one has been producing maple syrup for a retail market, so they hadn't been asked the question before.
In the meantime, McLeod has also been working with Al Craney, forester for Skagit Conservation District, to encourage hobbyists to preserve maple trees for syrup making. For years, forests in Western Washington have been managed to maximize production of Douglas fir for their valuable wood fiber. Ninety percent of forests in the region are now Douglas fir, which has left them vulnerable to diseases and pests that can spread rapidly.
Maple tree management has usually involved cutting the tree down to sell for firewood. However, if maple trees are preserved and healthy growth is encouraged, a single tree could produce much more income from the sale of its syrup over many years.
McLeod is excited that his work with Craney might help change the management of regional forests to a more mixed-species approach. The result would be healthier for the forests as a whole.
Having tasted some of this year's syrup, I think Neil's commercial offering next year will be a welcome addition to the list of amazing foods grown and produced here in Whatcom County! Watch this column or my blog for future updates.
HUBBARD SQUASH MUFFINS
2 cups hubbard squash, boiled or roasted, and mashed (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
1/2 cup butter, melted (homemade with cream from Silver Springs Creamery, Lynden)
1 egg, lightly beaten (friend, Lummi Island)
11/2 cups all-purpose flour (Fairhaven Organic Flour Mills, Burlington)
1/3 cup honey (Backyard Bees, Bellingham)
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl or mixer, thoroughly mix the wet ingredients: mashed squash, melted butter, beaten egg and honey. Add baking powder and salt, and mix again. Finally, mix in the flour 1 cup at a time.
Spoon batter into a muffin tin that has been well-greased or lined with paper muffin cups.
Bake in oven for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.
Makes 12 muffins.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.