FARMINGTON, N.H. - For Bob Leary of Farmington, sugarin' is a mixture of science and sacrifice, but he's pretty comfortable with both, he says, and the reward is oh so sweet.
In this strangest of years, Leary, whose 160 acres of forest, fields and wetlands sprawl on land off 10 Rod Road, began activating his 746 taps way back in mid-February, one of the earliest times ever, he says.
On Thursday, with many of his trees slowing their sap flow as the season winds down, he was busy harvesting about 240 gallons of sap from which he'll produce about six gallons of delicious New Hampshire maple syrup.
He culls sap in several ways. First he has a couple of collecting stations near his sugar house: one that takes sap flow from about 225 taps, another from 275.
Then farther away from the sugarhouse he has several way station vats that might collect from 30 to 60 taps, he says, noting some larger trees actually may have two or three or even four taps. And he has a few old-fashioned single-tap buckets, too.
|Collection points often draw on 40 or 50 taps.
Once the sap is all collected it's pumped into a huge stainless steel container above the sugarhouse, which allows its measured flow into an evaporator inside where it condenses into its sweet essence.
Then it's time to stoke up the fire. Leary on Thursday was using finely split ash, which crackled fiercely heating up the sugarhouse in minutes and spreading the faint, sweet aroma of thickening sap.
Leary, who jokes he works best at a wobbly warp speed, rarely stops moving inside the sugarhouse, manipulating valves that control the flow of sap into the evaporator, checking multiple thermometers to confirm temperature and tossing more small logs into a large firebox at the front of the evaporator.
|Bob Leary feeds a crackling firebox with finely split ash.
He said it's nothing for him to lose several pounds during sugarin' season from working in his small sugarhouse, and noted on Wednesday when temperatures in the Northern Seacoast reached near 70 degrees, it was 120 degrees in the sugarhouse.
He said he'll use about a half cord of wood Thursday boiling down the 240 gallons of sap to make the six gallons of syrup.
Leary, who grew up on this same acreage where his father ran a dairy farm, left early in life to pursue a career in engineering, eventually working for various state highway departments before ending up with the Federal Highway Administration where he worked as a geotechnical engineer in underground work, assaying ground composition for possible highway projects.
Ten years ago, however, he decided to return to his roots with his wife, Debbie, to rekindle his ties to sugarin' and his native home.
And once the sap become syrup at a temperature of about 218 degrees, Leary's science side takes over. Since the evaporator holds a large amount of sap, he likes to siphon off a gallon or two before it's ready to harvest so he can heat if further on a smaller propane stove nearby.
"That way I don't all of a sudden have a huge amount that's ready to be taken," he says.
Once sap is transferred to a burner on the propane stove he uses a hydrometer to calculate the sugar content.
|A hydrometer is used to measure the sugar content, a key measurement in determining when it's done.
Once it reaches 66.9 percent sugar, it's ready for the next step. Leary painstakingly attaches an orlon filter inside a canister and pours in the syrup. Afterward he pours it through a wool filter and before it's ready to be bottled or canned, he'll run it through another wool filter.
After that he'll bottle or can it and sell it to retailers like the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton which sells it at its store through the summer and fall.
His syrup will also be on sale at the museum's Maple Syrup day on March 19.
After sugarins' over in a week or so, Leary says with a wry grin it'll be on to what he calls the "glamor" part of his job: cleaning all the vats, the evaporator, the holding tanks and miles of lines that crisscross his woods.
So does he make any money at this? After installing a brand new $8,000 evaporator this year and the countless hours and money he sinks into his operation annually he answers the question with a story.
"Did you hear about the sugarin' farmer who won the lottery? They asked him what he was gonna do with it and he said, 'Just keep on sugarin' till I run out of money.'"
For more about Leary's maple syrup, click here.