An Interview with First-Generation Sugar Makers

Meet Ian and Caitlin Ackermann of Cabot, VT, first-generation sugar makers. Keep reading as Caitlin talks about the ups and downs of owning Ackermann Maple Farm.

This interview appeared in our 2021 Winter Issue.

One of Ian’s first jobs growing up was working for his neighbor, who made maple syrup. There, he learned most of what he needed to know to start up his own operation. In 2012, when he was 25, he bought his first piece of sugarwoods. It was 26 acres of land with 3,000 untouched maple trees, on a beautiful hillside in the town that we both grew up in, Cabot, VT. 

In 2015, once I graduated college, we decided to go in full-time together, and we started expanding the number of trees we had by buying more land with naturally growing maples. We now have 148 acres with 10,000 wildly grown, majestic maple trees, some as old as 200 years. Ian used to be a dairy farmer, but since we both love to travel so much, we knew the dairy farming lifestyle wasn’t for us. We found the perfect way to live off the land without having to be committed to being home year-round.

LEARNING THE TAPPING PROCESS FROM START TO FINISH

When a tree is about 40 years old, or 8 inches in diameter, it is old enough to start tapping. The first thing we needed to do when we bought our land was to set up the tubing. The new, efficient way of making maple syrup is using food-grade tubing. That way, all of the sap can run downhill to a collection point instead of us having to go collect sap from each individual tree every day like they used to have to do with buckets. In our woods, we have about 50 miles of tubing crisscrossing through the trees. This tubing will stay up year-round. In late spring and early summer, we split firewood. We use trees that have fallen over in our woods and tops from family logging jobs as firewood to boil our sap. The wood is split and stacked so it dries enough for sugaring season in early spring. In February, we start tapping, and this takes about a month. We snowshoe to every single one of our 10,000 trees to put on the spouts and fix leaks in the tubing. After the spouts are on the tubing, it’s time to tap. Ian will drill a small hole in the trunk of the tree and lightly tap the spout into it. He taps it in just hard enough to keep it from pushing out during a cold freeze but not hard enough to split the bark. 

THE STEPS TO PRODUCE A BOTTLE OF SYRUP

Once the trees are all tapped, it’s time to wait for the weather to be perfect. Sugaring season in northern Vermont runs from March through April, and the weather needs to be thawing during the day and freezing at night. When the sap starts running, first, we must check the vacuum. All of our tubing has a small amount of vacuum running through it, to pull more sap from the tree and keep bacteria from going up into the tree. Squirrels, bears, and deer can smell the sweet sap and like to chew on the tubing. Checking a vacuum is kind of like the most intense scavenger hunt of your life. Finding these leaks requires hours of walking through the woods, tracking down the tiniest of pinhole leaks, and fixing them. Every leak is production lost and can create ice build-up in the tubing. Once the vacuum is tight, we can collect the sap, and process it in the sugarhouse. Some of our sap needs to be hauled in with a tank in the back of our 5-ton army truck, and some are collected and pumped right into the sugarhouse. Every day that we get the perfect sugaring weather gives us around 20,000 gallons of sap. The ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1. 

Once the sap is collected, we run it through an R.O. or reverse osmosis. This is a super-fine filter that removes some of the water from the sap. Sap straight from the tree is an average of 2% sugar, and once we run it through the R.O. it is 20% sugar. We use the R.O. to save on wood consumption because we try to stay as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. After that, we send it onto the arch, where we finish boiling it with the wood fire to 67% sugar. That is the consistency of perfect, 100% pure Vermont maple syrup. We make about 80 gallons of maple syrup an hour once everything is up and running and boil every day so the sap doesn’t spoil. We store the finished syrup in 40-gallon stainless drums, and then I bottle it and make maple cream and maple sugar throughout the year. 

Once sugaring is over, we walk around the woods again, pulling the taps from the tree so the bark can heal. This maintains the health of the trees, and we can tap them indefinitely as long as we take care of them. On a perfect year, we can make up to 1/2 gallon of maple syrup per tap, but that greatly depends on the weather!

FLAVORS OF SYRUP

We just started experimenting with different flavor combinations and thought about what our customers might like. The coffee infused was Ian’s idea, and he doesn’t even drink coffee! Maple syrup doesn’t need to be just for pancakes, and more and more people are using it for cocktails, in coffee, in salad dressings, and as marinades. Our family uses about 1 gallon per month because I use it so often for cooking and baking.

Breakfast Boxes at Ackermann Maple Farm

We had always loved the idea of a package of breakfast items being delivered right to your door and the excitement on the faces of your family members as they open it up to find what new surprises might be inside. We thought about how great it would be for the entire family to use all of those products, from regular maple syrup, infused or barrel-aged maple syrup, maple cream, maple sugar, and pancake mix, to make the best memories together on a Sunday morning. We have such great memories of pancake breakfasts with our families, and we want other people to experience that too. 

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE WANTING TO BECOME A SUGAR MAKER?

Running a business that heavily relies on nature can be extremely taxing. There are days when we don’t think it’ll work. Days when we want to quit. There have been entire seasons where not a single thing seems to go right. But just know that if you have the passion and drive, it will all come together in the end. And always have a backup plan, just in case the weather doesn’t work in your favor. Last year was a really bad sugaring season. It was short, the days were very hot, and we only made 50% of our normal crop. Having a backup of extra syrup for those years is a good idea!

Simply put, we wanted to have lunch together. We spent years of our lives only seeing each other at night and on weekends, and we knew that it wasn’t for us. We didn’t want to fit into a certain mold. We also wanted the freedom to travel and not be tied down to a 9-5 job. There are very hard parts of owning your own business, and it often feels like we work longer hours than a normal job, but we’re still putting in those hard years so we can hopefully have more freedom in the future. We also wanted something to pass down to our kids, so we can start a legacy for our family that will live on, long after we’re gone.

IG: @ackermannmaplefarm
FB: Ackermann Maple Farm
Website: www.ackermannmaplefarm.com

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