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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

All tapped out

Move over smokestacks and oil refineries. The Garden State has a new product to offer… maple syrup

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | February 24, 1999

Corn and tomatoes have always been the poster foods of the Garden State — but maple syrup? Strictly Vermont stuff.

Yet Don Palmer, 70, a former banker, is in the midst of a frantic harvest and labor of love — the tapping of about 130 sugar maple trees on his 50-acre property in Schooley’s Mountain. Once harvested, Palmer’s maple syrup will make an even more unusual journey, to a store shelf, where it is a true rarity: maple syrup that is both made and sold in New Jersey.

“People always laugh at New Jersey about that,” Palmer says. “We aren’t about maple syrup.”

Most maple syrup sold in the state comes from Vermont, long known for its legendary and prodigious maple syrup industry. But Palmer’s glass flasks of Hillcrest Maple Syrup, named for his family farm, are sold at Schooley’s Mountain General Store, an old-fashioned country store in Washington Township in western Morris County.

Each eight-ounce bottle of syrup sells for $5 although it costs Palmer $6 to produce. He does it for the love of the outdoors and the store.

“It flies right out the door,” says Sally Vilardi, store owner. “We can’t keep enough of it in the store. It does real well.”

Maple sugaring hasn’t changed, either. Palmer essentially uses the same techniques as early colonists, who discovered “sweet water” from Native Americans. Having no salt, sugar, or honey, and few other flavorings, Native Americans used maple sugar in everything from meat to beverages.

Palmer got into the maple syrup business about 12 years ago after becoming intrigued by a neighbor who tapped trees. Knowing his property contained many sugar maples, he made several trips to New Hampshire and Vermont to learn sugaring from the pros and purchased the required equipment from a New Hampshire supplier.

His trees yield about 30 gallons of syrup each year. One gallon of syrup supplies about 16 flasks — a total of 480 bottles every season, which are generally available for sale between February and November.

“It keeps me busy and it keeps me outdoors,” he says. “I keep young working in the woods.”

No license is needed to sell maple syrup, because it falls under the general category of farm products, such as produce. Bacteria generally don’t thrive in a product so high in sugar concentration, says Suzzanne (cq) Mahoney, a naturalist with the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center in Chatham.

Though New Jersey does not have as many sugar maple trees as New England, there are nearly 1 million acres of forested land in the state in which sugar maples grow with other trees such as red maple, pine, ash, beech and blackgum, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

On Palmer’s property there are red maples, silver maples, Japanese maples and Norway maples. He taps only the sugar maples, which have the highest concentration of sugar. Palmer’s “sugar bush” — a New England term for woods containing sugar maples — is about 10 acres.

“I enjoy it. It’s fun,” Palmer says. “It’s a good thing to do during the months when there’s not much going on.”

Sap is a watery, clear starch made by the interaction of sunlight and carbon dioxide as it is absorbed through the leaves of trees. Maples make sap during the summer and store it during the winter. Warm days and freezing nights create pressure that results in the sap “running” throughout the tree. Because sugaring is so weather-dependent, the season can move a week or two every year, never being in the same place on the calendar.

It takes about 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Tapping deprives a tree of about 10 percent of its sap, Palmer says, explaining it is a process akin to “giving blood.”

Like any good sugar maker, Palmer only taps trees that are at least 40 to 50 years old and 12 inches in diameter, since they are the ones capable of producing enough sap. He uses the same trees every year, but always chooses a new spot to tap — at least six inches away from the previous year’s spot. In March, all the taps are removed; the spots heal on their own.

Palmer, now retired, was for 30 years a banker at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and chairman and chief executive officer of Horizon Bank in Morristown. His grandparents purchased the Schooley’s Mountain farm in 1898 as a summer home, arriving by horse and buggy from New York City. As a boy, Palmer spent his summers there. About 15 years ago, he moved to the farm permanently from his home in Millington, near Basking Ridge.

Palmer’s 170-year-old house is flanked by a barn, cottage, shop, and sugar house, which is actually a converted old chicken coop. The sugar house, of course, is where all the action is.

Palmer collects his sap the old-fashioned way. When conditions are right, about two gallons of sap collect in Palmer’s galvanized steel buckets every day. A hole about two and a half inches deep inside each trunk at a slightly upward angle holds a spile, which acts as a slowly dripping faucet. Commercial producers, by contrast, use a complex system of tubes leading from tree to sugar house.

The filled buckets are emptied into a 100-gallon tank loaded onto a tractor, which Palmer drives around the property. On a good day, he will fill the tank twice. The sap is pumped into a tank in the sugar house, where it passes through an ultraviolet light designed to kill any bacteria, and into an evaporator. In the evaporator, the sap begins the lengthy boiling process.

Palmer uses an old-fashioned wood fire to heat the evaporator. On busy days, the sugar house fills with steam and the scent of wood smoke and maple. It takes 24 hours to boil 120 gallons.

When the sap has been reduced to one large bucket, Palmer tests the syrup for doneness with a device called a hydrometer. He also filters the syrup for impurities, making sure it is crystal clear. It is then ready to be bottled.

Though Palmer does not grade his syrup, there are established grades for maple syrup. Grade A is the lightest and most subtle; grade B’s darker, stronger flavor is favored for cooking and baking. Palmer’s is the lighter variety.

Like most people, Palmer’s family loves their syrup drizzled on pancakes and French toast. They also use it as a topping for oatmeal and ice cream.

“I like it just as it is,” says Palmer.

School groups, Brownies and Scout troops have all helped Palmer with the harvest, as have his five grandchildren. He is determined to preserve the tradition of maple sugaring for future generations. Most of the farm is protected from development, including 10 acres under the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit group that has preserved 75,000 of the state’s acres.

It is, Palmer hopes, a sweet legacy to pass on.