As a kid growing up in Hawaii, I would dream about what it would be like to live in New England. Some ideas were probably pretty spot on, involving kids cheering on the Boston Red Sox while eating hot dogs. Others, like kids hiking in over a foot of snow to collect buckets of sap in order to make maple syrup, were probably less likely. Nevertheless, “collect sap from a maple tree” made its way to my bucket list. I assumed I would have to travel into the very northernmost part of New England in order to make this a reality. But lo and behold, Ambler Farm, a 200-year-old working farm in Wilton, CT had just what I was looking for!
The premise is that you buy (or more accurately, rent) a maple tree and help Ambler farm collect sap from that tree for the entire maple sugaring season. After all your “hard work,” you even get to take home your very own bottle of maple syrup that was made from the sap you helped collect. It was one of the coolest experiences I had while living in Connecticut.
The sap collecting season starts with an introductory class that gives you the science and history of making maple syrup. After that, the real hands-on learning comes into play, because then you get your own bucket.
Once you grab a bucket (each with an identifiable number so you don’t forget which one is yours), it’s “go” time. Find a tree, hang the bucket, and wait for the magic to begin.
The day of our introductory class and tree picking was the day after Blizzard Nemo. The town my husband and I lived in had almost 2 feet of snowfall the previous day and roads had only just been cleared a few hours before our class started. I was frantically trying to figure out if our class had been rescheduled. However, Ambler Farms, which had experienced less than a foot of snow, was still ready to welcome us as planned.
Blizzard Nemo turned out to be a fantastic addition to our tapping adventure. Just like I had envisioned, my first experience at collecting sap from a maple tree included getting dressed up in snow pants and traipsing through waist-high snow. Okay, really it was ankle-deep snow until I walked off what was apparently a wall. That’s what I get for going off the beaten path. But after the initial shock, finding myself in a deep snowbank was so much fun for this Hawaii girl.
After hanging our bucket on the tap of the maple tree we were supposed to return weekly (or more if we’d like) to help with sap collection. We had to walk the sap filled bucket over to the community collector bin. From that point on the staff of Ambler Farm would work to turn the sap into maple syrup. Note: by “staff” I mean the farmer, his family, and volunteers that get paid in dinners (so cute!). The amount of sap that might be collected each week could vary greatly. One thing we learned from the introductory class was the amount of sap heavily depended upon the weather. Winter days needed to have temperatures above freezing, followed by winter nights where temperatures were below freezing.
During our first weekend, there wasn’t actually much sap for us to walk over. However, that was because there had been so much sap accumulation during the week that the farmer and his team had to empty all the buckets on the previous Thursday night so that the buckets would not overflow.
One thing that I was relieved about was that someone was always checking the buckets. If they needed to, they would collect the sap from the bucket for you. While I wanted nothing more than to experience the sap collecting every week, the reality was that I had a job with very long hours in January and February. I hadn’t had much free time in prior years and was worried that there might be some weekends where I couldn’t get away. I was happy to know that even if I were to drop the ball, the sap wouldn’t be wasted.
Another thing I really appreciated was the informative emails from Farmer Kevin. The reason I knew about the buckets being emptied earlier during that first week was that Farmer Kevin wrote us emails about the sap. He sounded so excited about the maple sugaring happenings at Ambler Farm. His excitement was contagious. Whenever I saw that I had an email from Farmer Kevin, it completely brightened my day.
The staff was cooking batches of maple syrup when we showed up to drop off our bucket. We got to see the machine working AND sample some of the syrup right out of the vat. Oh my gosh, I’ve never tasted anything so delicious!
First of all, the land is beautiful. Just taking a walk around the farm in the snow and breathing in the fresh chilly air was enough to brighten my spirits after being cooped up in a cubicle on a computer all week.
My husband cannot seem to go anywhere without making friends with the local animals so we also spent a fair amount of time hanging out with the sheep at Ambler Farm.
At the end of the sap collecting season, each family in the Tap-a-Tree program received their very own bottle of maple syrup. I was so excited when the day came to select my very own bottle of dark maple syrup.
To learn more about Ambler Farm, visit their website here.
I wasn’t sure if they were still running their program this year given the pandemic but it turns out the Tap-a-Tree program is still a go, albeit with a zoom class in lieu of a group meetup at the farm on day one. The season runs from early February to mid-March with the orientation/class dates on January 30th or 31st.
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