Valley Bounty: Sunrise Farms Maple
Published March 4, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
“We call it liquid gold,” Erik Lively says of maple syrup. This is his favorite time of year at Sunrise Farms in the hills of Colrain, when they reap the sweet, amber rewards of a year’s hard work.
Lively and his brother Jordan, who both work full-time on the farm, are the fifth generation of Livelys harvesting a living from Sunrise Farms’ pastures and woodlot, now totaling 480 acres. The farm’s identity has evolved since their great-great grandfather settled there in the 1880s, but maple sugaring has always been a steady throughline. Today they also raise grass-fed beef and harvest timber.
To carry the farm into the future, “we’re turning to modern innovations that make our operation cleaner and more efficient,” Lively says. “That’s better for us, the environment, and our kids – the next generation.”
Sap has been flowing from the farm’s 3,500 taps for weeks now, but the story of syrup begins years before with careful management of the forest itself. Sunrise Farms maintain a productive sugarbush of nearly 40 acres, selectively thinning some trees to give the healthiest sugar maples room to thrive while still maintaining a diverse ecosystem.
Practicing “safe tapping,” as Lively calls it, also promotes better yield and longevity. “We don’t tap trees less than 10 inches in diameter,” he says, “and only use two taps for trees bigger than 24 inches.”
Tapping itself doesn’t hurt the tree, but more tap holes mean more entry points for disease, and the scar tissue from healed tap sites will never be as productive again.
Each tap feeds into a network of plastic tubing that drains towards collection tanks at their pumphouse. When conditions are right, sap flows downhill towards the tanks like a spring rain, aided by a pressure gradient created by vacuum pumps.
“From the pumphouse sap is pumped up to holding tanks at the sugarhouse, and we try to boil when the sap is freshest for the best syrup quality,” says Lively. “We run it through filters and our reverse osmosis system removes some of the water. Then it goes into the evaporator where it’s boiled down, filtered again, graded, and finally stored in stainless steel kegs for bottling.”
Sunrise Farms’ maple syrup is Certified Organic, a distinction that requires forest management techniques that encourage tree health and biodiversity and restricts additives in the finished products. They sell wholesale by the keg, and directly to customer through an online store at sunrisefarmsmaple.com, with pick-up available at the farm in Colrain and in Greenfield. Shipping is an option if customers contact them directly.
“Sunrise Farms has also been at the Greenfield Farmers Market for close to 40 years now, and we love it,” says Lively. “It’s great to see customers, who really appreciate meeting the farmer who made what they’re enjoying.” They sell at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers Market too.
Over 140 years, each generation at Sunrise Farms has brought different sensibilities to sugaring. These days, efficiency is the name of the game as they lean into modern innovations.
“It’s just my brother and me doing everything on the farm,” says Lively, “so the more efficient and better the technology, the easier it is for us.”
Out in the woods, that starts with attaching vacuum pumps to their collection tubing. This system allows them to harvest more sap from less taps and prevents tap holes from sealing as quickly, potentially extending their season 1-2 weeks. Next in the sugarhouse, their reverse osmosis machine removes over 15% of the sap’s water content, reducing both time and energy needed for evaporation.
Then comes the efficiency game-changer: their new EcoVap electric evaporator. This machine heats sap in a sealed unit with electric heating elements, then collects and pressurizes the resulting steam to continue heating sap and evaporating water until it becomes syrup. It can produce 50-100 gallons of syrup in a 6-hour cycle using less than $50 of electricity, whereas wood or oil-fired evaporators might take double the time while consuming stacks of lumber or dozens of gallons of fuel.
This new technology was a big investment and learning curve, says Lively. “My father used a wood-fired evaporator, that’s what we learned on, and it’s pretty simple – just big wood fired stove.” In contrast, troubleshooting an electric evaporator requires some understanding of computers and electronics.
“We also had concerns about how much electricity we’d need to power it,” he adds.” But we had already installed a lot of solar to power the pumps, reverse osmosis system, and other equipment, so in the end, we decided it was a no-brainer to go fully electric.”
Now, there’s no need to split, move, and stack mountains of wood. “We just flip a breaker and press start,” says Lively. “That frees us up to be in the woods setting more taps, fixing lines, and fitting other things into our day.”
With each of these technologies, Lively recalls a ‘why didn’t we do this sooner’ moment, and so he’s excited to ease their adoption by others. “Every local syrup producer that comes up here to see things, I can see the gears turning, thinking, ‘this is doable,’” he says.
Sugaring season began early in 2023, across the Valley and Hilltowns. “I don’t want to jinx anything,” says Lively, “but we’ve made 805 gallons of syrup so far, so we’re off to a pretty good start.”
Yet like most farming endeavors, success hinges on favorable conditions – for maple, warm days with nights still below freezing. As climate change makes our weather more extreme and variable, predictions are harder than ever.
For the Livelys, that’s even more reason to invest in forest health and all their strategies for lengthening the season and maximizing production when the sap is flowing. Meanwhile, powering their operation with solar energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating contributions to climate change at the source.
“There are trees here that my kids tapped, that their great-great-great grandfather tapped, and that’s because of how they were cared for,” he says. “We want to pass on the knowledge, but also the trees themselves.”
The goal of a net-zero emissions sugaring operation extends that care outward to the land and people past the boundaries of their farm. With skill and a bit of climate friendly innovation, they hope maple syrup will flow from the forests of Colrain for years to come.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about maple farms and sugarshack restaurants near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.