Valley Bounty: Mountainside Maple Farm
Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette March 5, 2022
By JACOB NELSON
“A breath of spring.” That’s how Luke Longstreeth, owner of Mountainside Maple Farm in Hatfield, describes the recent arrival of maple sugaring season to the Valley. The first local crop of the agricultural new year.
“It’s such a finite season where local sugar-makers make enough syrup to supply our community throughout the year,” he reminds us.
Ever drawn to physical work outdoors, Longstreeth first trained as an arborist, then found sugaring a perfect complement given his seasonal schedule and forestry knowledge. As he tells the story, “It started with an ad on Craigslist. Someone was selling an 8×8 plywood shed with a little evaporator. Me and some buddies bought it and decided to tap some maple trees and see what it was all about. It just blossomed from there.”
Every year the “sugar shed” set up in his driveway grew, more trees were tapped, and more equipment was added. Finally for the 2019 season, he built a permanent post and beam sugarhouse from trees he felled and milled himself.
Longstreeth led that project – and has always been sole owner of the business – but stresses his gratitude for support from friends, family, and his Hatfield community in the sugarhouse raising and all of Mountainside Maple’s success. “It’s really humbling to see that people are always asking for ways to help, without expecting anything in return,” he says. “People just like seeing others do well in this area.”
Their first syrup of 2022 was pulled off the evaporator last week, but preparations started months ago.
“Throughout the summer and fall we’re maintaining lines, fixing leaks, adjusting things,” Longstreeth says. When conditions are right, taps are installed and sap begins flowing down the network of tubing that crisscrosses the forested tracks that he leases, collecting in tanks at the low points.
Warm days above 40 degrees and cooler nights in the 20s create the pressure difference in the tree that allows the sap to flow. Adding vacuum pumps to each system of lines increases that differential, collecting more sap in less time without stressing the trees.
When collection tanks are full, the sap is trucked to the sugarhouse and fed through a reverse-osmosis system to remove much of the water. This can reduce 5,000 gallons of sap to about 800 gallons of an intermediate product called concentrate, which takes much less time and energy to boil down in the evaporator.
The evaporator consists of a series of chambers. As concentrate is heated it loses more water, becomes denser, and is pushed into the next chamber per the machine’s design. All the while, Longstreeth is constantly adjusting things since everything from humidity to barometric pressure can affect the rate of evaporation.
Once the concentrate reaches the right sugar content, it’s officially syrup. “Then it’s slowly drawn off the evaporator, through a filter press to make it crystal clear, and store in stainless steel food grade drums before bottling,” he says.
The hand-crafted syrup made at Mountainside Maple and other local sugarhouses is very different than syrup made by large operations elsewhere. The latter tend to blend everything to create consistency, while local farmers produce syrups with flavors unique to their sap, methods, and even time of year. Lighter, milder syrups come first, then rich amber syrups in later weeks – like a microbrewery brewing limited releases rather than a brand-name IPA.
Mountainside Maple also makes several specialty products, from maple cream, candy, and sugar to Longstreeth’s personal favorite, infused syrups. “We do one with cinnamon and vanilla, another with smoked serrano chilies, and we aged some syrup in a bourbon barrel from a distillery in Kentucky,” he says. “Silver Bear Distillery in Dalton also makes a maple liqueur with our syrup.”
Longstreeth finds the growing market for local maple syrup encouraging. “Being part of CISA’s Local Hero program and brand has been a great tool,” he says. “And people are realizing maple syrup goes far beyond pancakes and waffles. It’s a healthy sweetener for lots of things. Put it on yogurt or in your morning coffee, use it in barbecue sauces and marinades – even in cocktails.”
Strong demand gives local sugar-makers even more reason to collaborate instead of competing. “Everyone that I’ve met in the local sugaring world is absolutely fantastic, and willing to share their knowledge, successes, and mistakes,” he says. “We’re a very tight-knit group.”
A changing climate will probably reduce the number and health of sugar maples in western Massachusetts, and the length of the sugaring season from first thaw to first budding will certainly shrink. Yet Longstreeth personally feels local maple farmers will be able to adapt – at least for the next 25 years or so.
“We will see more variability,” he says. “But if we have to tap more trees to make the same amount of syrup in a shorter season, that’s what we’ll do. There’s plenty of trees still untapped.”
With measured optimism, Longstreeth hopes to carry the torch of local maple sugaring into the future. This year he set 2,000 taps, hoping for 30,000 gallons of sap and nearly 600 gallons of syrup. In three years, he aim to set 5,000 taps – still a small operation but growing.
“I’m waiting my turn,” he says. “As older sugar-makers slow down more markets will become available. It’s not a fulltime job now, but maybe someday.”
For the next several weeks, Mountainside Maple’s sugarhouse at 67 West St. in Hatfield will be open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, 10-4. “We love giving people tours and letting them see the process,” Longstreeth says. Syrup and other products bought there, picked up at 152 Pantry Rd. in Hatfield (contact them via phone, website, or social media to arrange), and soon on their webstore at mountainsidemaplefarm.com.
On March 19th and 20th, Mountainside Maple will also join the many local sugarhouses participating in Mass Maple Weekend, when “people come out, bring their kids, try some samples, and see the differences at each sugar house,” Longstreeth says. “It’s such an interesting part of local agriculture, and every sugar-maker I know loves to talk and tell their story.”
To learn more about local sugarhouses and sugar shack restaurants open in your area, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is Communications Coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).