We live on a small Vermont hill farm settled by our family in 1798. Presently the sixth and
seventh generation are running the farm, with the eighth just getting big enough to contribute.
We raise a few milk cows, some beef cows, pigs, chickens and a few turkeys, and have
bee hives. During the year we cut and bale hay for the animals, run a small sawmill to supply
lumber for repairs and new construction, grow a large family garden and cut a lot of firewood for
the two houses and the cider and syrup business. Some years we will use at least 75 cords of
wood - that’s a wall of wood four feet high and four feet wide and six hundred feet long - so many
years we buy some wood to keep up with our demand. Most of what we produce is for family
use or sold locally, but our maple syrup and cider products, our main income source, we
distribute further from home.
ABOUT WOODS CIDER MILL
My great-great-uncle started making cider jelly and boiled cider in 1882, when he converted our water-powered saw mill to a cider mill. Back in those pre-refrigeration days, fresh sweet cider had a shelf life of three or four days. After that it would ferment and could be preserved as either hard cider or as vinegar. Or it could be boiled down, similar to maple sap, in to a concentrated cider or a jelly. The first New England records of boiled cider - “apple molasses” - are from the 1660s in Connecticut, and it was a common product, especially in New England, up through the 1920s and 1930s. Then it almost completely disappeared, and by 1970 we were the last family producing it on a very small commercial level. We still use the old screw press from 1882, and press 70 bushels of apples at a time, three times a day, to make around 700 gallons per day of cider. Then we boil it down in a wood fired stainless steel evaporator to make boiled cider, or concentrate it a bit more to make cider jelly. We use local apples in a season that runs from mid-September till around Thanksgiving, and will make around 80 gallons of boiled cider or 750 pounds of cider jelly per day.
Our family has been tapping maple trees and making maple syrup and maple sugar on our farm since the 1830s or before. We annually tap around 4000 trees on our own land, and some we rent from neighbors. Maple sap runs when temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise in to the 40s during the day. For us, that is late February in to early April. Most of our taps run in tubing connected tree to tree to a central storage tank. We also put up around 500 buckets on old trees around the farm. It takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup. We concentrate some of that sap on a reverse osmosis machine, and finish boiling in a wood fired evaporator. Boiling the sap is what creates the maple flavor, and our wood fired syrup tends to be darker and have more maple flavor than larger producers who do most of the concentrating through reverse osmosis. Maple trees need to be around 40 years old to be large enough to be tapped, so they tend to be selected in a native forest rather than planted like an orchard. Even though we will drill a new hole or two into each tree each year, careful and conservative tapping does no harm to the trees. We are still tapping some trees that were first tapped in the 1860s, and thinning out young saplings that we hope our grandchildren will tap thirty years from now. Since maple trees prefer a cold climate, and since sap flow is so dependent on temperature fluctuations, climate change may well affect syrup production in southern Vermont in the decades to come, but hasn’t seriously affected us yet.