Cape May Residents Get a Hands-on Lesson in Making Maple Syrup
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP – In Court House, a new off-season community is forming around an unlikely liquid: maple syrup. The extraction of the sweet stuff is helping locals understand the importance of sustainable, local food production.
Over 100 people gathered on a freezing Saturday morning for a maple-tapping event at the Deeply Rooted Learning Center in Court House, where unassuming red maple trees produce sap that can be boiled into syrup with processes similar to the ones used in maple capitals like Canada and Vermont.
It takes a lot of patience, but thanks to Stockton University’s Maple Project, folks across Cape May County and South Jersey are using their land to produce maple syrup.
On that freezing Jan. 20 morning, Stephanie Wiscott, Deeply Rooted’s co-founder, showed locals how they could use red maples on their land — even protected land — to produce syrup. Those who turned out, including many families with young kids, trudged through snow and slush with sap buckets in their hands to begin the tapping process.
Lisa Innarella, from Court House, said that she came to the event to help spice her life up a little bit. “You wake up one day and realize you’re 60 years old! … I wanted to learn something new — I think it’s important to learn how to live on the land,” she told the Herald as she hammered a tap into a red maple.
This year, the center will tap 25 trees, with room to grow in the future.
Wiscott began tapping maple trees on her own land many years ago. She lives on a rural property in Court House and tries to produce and grow as much of her food as possible.
“I got the idea from reading ‘Little House on the Prairie’ as a kid,” she said. “This was my crazy dream.”
It was a dream shared by Dr. Judith Vogel, a math professor at Stockton University who helped spearhead its Maple Project, which received nearly a million dollars in USDA funding to answer the question, in the words of Stockton alum and the Maple Project’s assistant director, Ryan Hagerty:
“Is it feasible to make maple syrup in South Jersey?”
The Maple Project began in 2020, and four years later, has answered that question with a definitive yes. The USDA grant allowed the university to install a “sugar shack” on campus that houses an industrial-scale boiler that separates the glucose (created during the photosynthesis process as food for the tree) from the main ingredient in sap: water.
The final product is incredibly simple, just water and boiled, natural sugar.
Sap is forced out of the tree when it unfreezes; the quick temperature change creates a pressure system within the tree that forces the sap out. Sap flows the most when the nights are freezing but the days are mild. Bucket-tapping trees means directing the sap from the tree, through a plastic tube, into buckets like the ones you might find in any gardener’s backyard.
Last year, Stockton’s efforts produced just 22 gallons of syrup. Deeply Rooted Learning Center produced less than a single gallon. The culprit: the third-warmest winter in New Jersey’s recorded history.
This year’s weather promises more sap, with several snowstorms and freezes just a month into the winter season. Some 700 gallons of it have been extracted at Stockton alone since the tapping season began.
The extraction process used at Stockton is more complicated than the simple tube-and-bucket system used in Court House. Sap extraction at the 1,600-acre campus is more efficient thanks to a vacuum pump system that uses the same components RVs use to pump water in and out of their cabins.
“You could make this at home for around $200,” Hagerty explained. But the setup is complicated and requires a lot of labor.
Wiscott wants to bring that vacuum pump system to the Deeply Rooted Learning Center, but a system like that requires more time and more setup. Despite the simple extraction method, the Maple Project has been a huge boon for the small learning center, which is one of 10 new maple hubs across South Jersey.
The hub in Court House is very simple, but others in South Jersey have more involved setups that can boil down the sap at a more efficient clip.
But efficiency — though always desirable — is not always the point.
“The thing about maple syrup is that it’s a community-building process,” Hagerty told the Herald. “There are lots of hours sitting around a fire boiling sap, or collecting sap together. It’s super important that these hubs host these events and educate the community. People don’t even know you can make maple syrup in South Jersey. We want to let as many people know as possible.”
The USDA grant also allows Debra Sommers, a Stockton University alum and a lifelong science teacher in South Jersey public schools, to evangelize South Jersey maple syrup at schools across the state. Local kids can see how the process works with their own eyes, which helps them understand the complexity of a tree’s life cycle.
Though the community-building and educational benefits of maple tapping are clear, nothing will change the fact that South Jersey’s abundant red maple has less sugar in its sap than the sugar maples farther north.
It takes 60 gallons of sap from red maple trees to produce just a single gallon of syrup. Sugar maples have a leaner 40:1 ratio.
Cape May County is rich with red maples, many of them on protected lands. Two hundred years ago, these forests looked very different. White cedar ruled the peninsula. Cedar was a vital component of homebuilding as America industrialized in the 19th century.
But by the middle of the 20th century, fewer than one-sixth of those cedar forests still stood. In their place grew the hardy red maple, also known as swamp maple. This is an opportunistic species that crops up when other species retreat from low-lying, wet areas like Cape May County.
Michael Adams, a new teacher at Cape Tech, said that the history of Cape May County’s white cedar, and the rise of red maples, is a point of emphasis in his Environmental Science & Sustainability classes. The fall of long-standing white cedar forests — and the red maples that quickly took their place — is an easy way to show his students how overharvesting can have a dramatic impact on the landscape.
Maple tapping, then, is a hands-on way for Cape Tech students to use these red maples productively. None of this would have happened without the work done by Stockton’s Maple Project.
All of this is taking place as sugar maples see a historic decline.
Record-breaking average temperatures across the American Northeast have caused many native species to retreat northward. This includes the sugar maple, Adams explained.
“The southern end of every cold-weather adaptive species is pushing upward. Their range is constricting, they’re pushing northern and upslope,” he said.
It is important, then, that South Jersey take on the task of local food production — and emphasize the importance of environmental sustainability to local students.
“We can’t rely on California to produce all of our food,” Adams said. “How can we use our backyard to produce food that historically was shipped from all over the globe? We have a lot of valuable natural resources here, they’re aesthetically pleasing and can be productive. And if we take care of them, we will have them for a long time.”
Sixteen of his students ventured out into the cold on Wednesday, Jan. 24, to tap the red maples on Cape Tech’s 84-acre campus. Adams’ students will record the amount of sap produced by each tree and will try to isolate the variables that seem to encourage sap production. Will a thicker tree produce more sap? Less crowded trees? Trees with more sun?
“What better way to get the students to learn about environmental science and sustainability than to go learn about trees in their backyard habitat,” Adams said.
And as a sweet bonus, any syrup the students produce can be used as an ingredient for Cape Tech’s culinary students.
Are you tapping trees on your property? Reach out to the author, Collin Hall, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give him a call at 609-886-8600 ext. 156