Where to Make Sugar Maple in New Jersey: Howell Living History Farm

New Jersey is in the middle of winter and people are always looking for fun and exciting things to do with their family or loved ones. Sure, there’s ice skating and skiing, or snuggling up indoors by a fireplace with a steamy cup of hot chocolate.

But what about doing something different? How about sugar maple? It’s a fun and delicious way to spend a wintry afternoon and it’s all the rage with several events taking place across the state including Tenafly, Westfield, Mendham and Flemington.

But there is one farm in Hopewell Township, Howell Living History Farm, a Mercer County Park Commission facility, that does old-fashioned maple syrup production.

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

What is maple syrup?

Maple sugar is the process by which maple syrup is made from the sap that naturally flows from the top to the bottom of maple trees, said Kevin Watson, administrator and farmer at Howell Living History Farm.

The syrup on the pancakes is the result of a lot of work, which begins with drilling holes in the maple trees. Depending on the size of the tree, people can drill between one and three holes without hurting the tree, he said.

Jeb pulls the maple sap sled. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Jeb pulls the maple sap sled. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

What’s tapping the tree?

To tap a tree, Watson said a person will drill a small hole, maybe half an inch or less, through the bark and into the tree’s zylone, which is the long hollow cells of the wood of the tree. ‘maple. From there you hook up a spout and a bucket and collect the sap for several weeks.

Maple sap bucket. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Maple sap bucket. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

The sap is then used in an evaporator. A large pot of sap is boiled on the stove at the rate of 40 to 1 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup. “To make a gallon of maple syrup, it takes 40 gallons of sap taken from the tree,” Watson said.

Sugarbush at Howell Living History Farm

Watson said it’s a living history farm. This means that the farm recreates life from 1890 to 1910.

So instead of tapping and sugaring maple using modern equipment like they can in places like Vermont, Howell Farm takes you back to simpler times.

Jeb pulls the maple sled on Howell Living History Farm (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Jeb pulls the maple sled on Howell Living History Farm (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Visitors will go out into the woods and tap the maple trees. Others will go out with a team of horses pulling a bobsled or wagon, and they will harvest the sap by picking up full buckets from trees and dumping the sap into containers on the bobsled. These containers are then taken back to a sugar shack on the farm where the evaporator is used to boil the sap into syrup.

Tap maples at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Tap maples at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

“At the farm, we show the difference between life 100 years ago and life today in our area,” Watson said.

How was maple culture discovered?

The history of maple syrup goes back to pre-colonial times, he says. Native Americans used to do a version of tree tapping that did not involve drilling a hole in the bark, but rather cutting a notch. They used birch bark buckets sewn with elm bark and sealed with pine resin and they collected the sap in these homemade buckets.

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Watson said it was a great way to make local sugar in our area. For the settlers, importing sugar from the West Indies was very expensive, so it was a great way to obtain sugar in a climate where sugar cane could not be grown.

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Over time, improvements have been made. Settlers realized they could create a tap out of pieces of sumac – a small twig where the center is hollowed out, then a hole is drilled in the tree and the twig is inserted into the hole. Then a spout is put in place and a bucket is hung on it.

Native Americans also did not have iron cauldrons. Thus, they heated stones on the fire and threw the stones in the homemade buckets to concentrate and boil the sap on the spot. As settlers brought more sophisticated machinery with them, they eventually made taps out of metal.

Maple sap wagon (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Maple sap wagon (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Boiling sap to create sugar was here to stay. The sap has a low concentration of sugar and starch and deteriorates over time. Boiling the sap into sugar makes it last longer. Much of the early days of maple syrup production was aimed at creating sugar. It was only after the invention of canning that the syrup could be stored.

What makes maple syrup interesting?

Watson said what makes the process on the farm so interesting is that they do half the maple syrup during their period (1890-1910), which includes the horses pulling the bobsleds or wagons to collect tree sap in the woods.

The other half of the process uses a more modern system found in Vermont or other maple states, which involves a network of tubes that descend from the mountain and collect the sap in a modern holding tank.

Jeb pulls the maple sap sled. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Jeb pulls the maple sap sled. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Part of the maple sugaring process on the farm is educational. Farmers show how maple syrup would have been done as modern operations do today.

When can you go sugarbush at Howell Living History Farm?

The tree tapping event on the farm takes place on February 5th. It’s the start of maple sugaring season.

Visitors can join Howell Farm’s expert tree tappers for a lesson in how to tap a backyard maple tree and make syrup at home. Demonstrations are limited to 25 participants. It’s a free event. Simply register online.

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Children collect sap from maple trees. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Then February 19 and 26 are Saturdays from the maple grove to the farm from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Visitors will help farmers split firewood. Seven cords of firewood are used throughout the season on the farm. That’s about 800 to 900 cubic feet of stacked firewood, Watson said.

Logs for firewood at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Logs for firewood at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Visitors will then help the farmers harvest the sap in the woods as they ride the horses and sleds. They will then make syrup from the sap and enjoy the finished product on whole-wheat patties, made from wheat grown on the farm.

“Last year we made 85 gallons of syrup from 3,500 gallons of sap. Half of that sap was collected by visitors. Each year, approximately 2,000 gallons of sap are collected from the farm between visitors and horses,” Watson said.

Splitting firewood at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Splitting firewood at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

The farm is a Mercer County Park Commission free park. Admission to the farm is always free. All they ask is that you reserve your place for the tree tapping and sugar bush.

The smell of maple syrup is in the air at Howell Living History Farm!

Maple syrup bottles with sweet maple syrup inside (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

Maple syrup bottles with sweet maple syrup inside (Photo credit: Howell Living History Farm)

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