Dr. Montana Vasquez-Grinnell brought her sixth-grade science students to the great lawn of Hemm House for a special hands-on lesson that is unique to Gill St. Bernard’s--maple syrup making!
As part of the annual STREAMS project, students bundled up and were involved in all aspects of the process: examining the health of the tree, evaluating the best location for the tap, hammering in the spile, securing the lidded bucket, and of course, tasting the sap that immediately dripped from the opening. This particular exercise targeted the “A” (agriculture) in the 6th grade STREAMS curriculum. Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell discussed with students the connection between food systems and the world, broadening their understanding of how humans can utilize a natural resource sustainably.
In New Jersey, prime sap collection only occurs during six weeks of the year, when the nights drop below freezing and the days warm to just above freezing. Sap flows through trees all year round but is the sweetest during this specific period.
“If you tap the trees too late in the season, the syrup will taste like burnt coffee,” Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell explained to her class. “It’s so bitter!”
The mature sugar maple trees lining the Hemm House driveway are champion producers. “I have to empty the buckets every day,” Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell said, “or they could overflow.” She then transports the sap home where she slowly boils off the water until only the syrup remains.
There are a variety of trees which can be tapped for sap, but sugar maples have the highest sugar concentration—meaning you need less sap to make syrup. Even so, each gallon of syrup produced from a maple sugar tree requires 40 gallons of sap. "There’s a lot of work that goes into producing the food we eat,” Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell reminded the students. “Even something as simple as the bottle of syrup you buy from the store requires hours of effort.”