Maple: From tap to jar

Making maple syrup is a major enterprise at THB Farm. Like many agriculture enterprises, making maple syrup depends on the weather. A successful maple season requires cold nights and warm days. This February, the warmest in many years in Southern Ohio, shortened the season dramatically. The syrup season in Ohio generally starts in late January/early February and lasts until the weather is too warm.

Ben spent many hours this fall mapping and setting up the sugar bush at THB Farm. The maple trees are connected by a system of tubing that allows the sap to travel from the individual trees to a bulk collection tank in the barn.  The taps do not hurt the trees but do allow the clear sap to be collected without hanging buckets on the trees.


tree tap

Each tree receives one tap, which is connected to the clear tubing that takes the sap to the main (blue) line.


main line

The sap then flows from the blue tubing into a bulk collection tank.

collection tank

When a sufficient amount of sap is collected, it is pumped from the collection tank to an overhead tank, referred to as a head tank, positioned so that the sap can be pumped directly into the stove.


head tank

From the head tank, the sap gravity fed into a reservoir on the side of the stove.



 Maple stove



feeding the stove

The boiling process is as much of an art as it is a science– knowing when the sap has fully cooked to syrup requires careful attention to detail and watching the process to prevent the syrup from scorching.


checking the syrup’s progress
100% Ohio Maple Syrup

After several hours of boiling, the sap is cooked down to the thickness of syrup. To ensure consistency, the conversion of sap to syrup is determined by a hydrometer. If necessary,  the syrup is finished on a the precise heat of a gas stove and then bottled.

When the weather begins to warm, the season must end. The taps are removed from the trees, which will heal over several weeks. While we maple lovers don’t think of maple syrup as a seasonal item or enterprise, it very much is. Enjoy your syrup in season and while you can. When it’s gone, it’s gone!



Big goat, small goat, medium goat: Dwarfs, minis, and standard sized goats

Goats are probably the most spirited animal that we keep here at Tarheelbilly Farm. We maintain a small herd of registered goats, and have experimented with several breeds over the past several years. Currently we have mini-Nubians, a standard Nubian, a Saanen, and Nigerian Dwarfs. When we started keeping goats 8 or so years ago, Nigerians were on the ALBC’s list of threatened livestock.  Given our interest in preserving breeds along with our desire to have a backyard milking source, we started with Nigerian doelings and grew from there.


Over the years, we’ve secured great genetic pedigrees for our Nigerians, but have not been enthusiastic about their ability to produce the amount of milk we need for our family. Their milk is creamy and sweet, and they have great personalities. We did acquire a standard Nubian and a Saanen to provide enough milk for cheesemaking.


Two years ago we decided to use our Nigerian Dwarf bucks with our full sized does to see whether minis more milk than Nigerians. This year we finally have a doe in milk to compare our Nigerians to, and the difference is amazing.IMG_2213


My first freshener Dwarfs typically produced a pint to a pint and a half per day. My mini-Nubian is producing a quart to a quart and a half per day. The Dwarf stands 21 inches at the shoulder; the mini-Nubian is 23 inches at the shoulder. (For comparison, the Nubian and Saanen are roughly 27 inches at their shoulders.)



So, what does this mean? If you are considering a goat for backyard milk production, a standard-Dwarf  (mini-Nubian/mini-Saanen) cross may work well for you. Nigerian Dwarfs are wonderful animals with great temperaments and good milk capacity for people who don’t use a ton of milk. High production strains are out there (THB Dwarfs all came from * milking lines and creameries), but they may require great feed or high inputs to produce what an average mini will produce.

Soil health, or will anything grow here?

I read a lot. I majored in Russian literature in college, a fact that has had zero to do with the various occupations that I’ve had as an adult, but it did prepare me to read and retain lots of details. Though I still occasionally read fiction, most of my spare time is used reading technical manuals and farming related texts. Since moving to the farm, I’ve spent a lot of time reading various agronomy texts (soil science for the uninitiated). You would be surprised how much animal (and people) health is related to soil  health.

Back in November, I took a dozen or so soil samples to our local Soil and Conservation office to be analyzed by a local agronomy lab. The results give a pretty good indication of soil health– levels for organic matter, ph, and micronutrients are contained on the report, along with recommended levels for each.

Now that you have the information about your pasture or field, what do you do with it?!! According to most old timers and farming professionals that I’ve spoken to, most fields can use more lime. What does lime do– well, lots of things, most of which are complicated and beyond the scope of a blog post. Suffice to say, lime changes the ph of the soil and can make certain nutrients more bioavailable for plants to grow. In our case, the soils here in Southern Ohio are mostly clay, which tends to be more alkaline.

What to plant? Well, that depends. I have small ruminants, goats and sheep. Sheep thrive on pastures with legumes and clover. Some species of clover dies out and must be reseeded, either manually or just through pasture management. In Joel Salatin’s “Salad Bar Beef,” he offered that he has been able to rejuvenate pastures solely through intensive grazing, saying that seed remains viable and dormant for many years and proliferate when soil conditions are right. I do not doubt such claims, but I don’t own cattle, so I’ll have to bite the bullet and purchase seed to get started. Besides, there are a few species that I would like to have in the pasture for bees/pollination in addition to feed for the sheep.

I am not ignoring the goats, but they are browsers and not grazers. Though we purchase hay for them and purchase feed, I plan to seed lespedeza as a natural parasite inhibitor. We’ll have to see whether it works.


How to clear a field in 1000 easy steps

One of the first things we did when we moved was put the goats in the most overgrown areas of the farm. Brambles and poison ivy were encroaching on the pasture and in places that I’d planned to garden. So, we spent most of the summer moving portable fencing (tedious) and beating back the tide of forest succession.

Goats are a truly effective method of clearing wooded or transitional areas. They are browsers, not grazers; as such, they will mow down wild roses, ivy, and just about any plant that most ruminants would find unpalatable.

When we moved, a lot of the farm looked like this:


This is, for the record, goat heaven. It is also a good reason to have your tetanus shot updated.

Now the the goats have beaten the brush back, it’s time to move to phase two. With the help of a good pickax, shovel, pruning shears, several pairs of leather gloves, and a hand saw, those same overgrown areas are becoming a little more manageable.

There is still much more to be done to convert this area to a full-fledged pasture, but converting a field to pasture without the aid of a brush hog or chemicals is possible with a bit of sweat equity.


Toil and trouble

What are the odds that all lambs born on the farm this year would be males? Well, regardless of the mathematical probability, that’s exactly what happened this season. Four ewes gave birth to 4 lambs. It is an auspicious start to the fledgling Tunis flock, but 3 are healthy and thriving, having lost one the day after it was born.

These days we are busy with lambing and kidding season will soon be upon us as well. Ben spends most days in the woods, tapping trees and working on his maple enterprise. I’ve been manually clearing fields. I hope that sentence conveys the sheer absurdity of the task. To be specific, I have been digging up wild roses , honeysuckles, and blackberry vines with a pickax, hand saw, and hand shears. The brush hog is kaput, and since I need these fields cleared for pasture, I am clearing them with the tools that I have at my disposal.

This brigs me to my next thought– determination. I read an article the other day about beginning farmers and how people need to just START. Even if you long for that nice little Kubota that would make life so much easier, farm with what you have until you can do better.

There are lots of days when the sheer amount of work and finances required to run the farm without worry is daunting. We are slowly plugging away, making our farm dream a reality. But I’m not going to sugar coat it– it’s HARD WORK!


Following in his footsteps

One of my most fond childhood memories is walking in my grandfather’s bootprints as he worked in his garden. Row after row, he worked tirelessly, silently hoeing the weeds that plagued the red Anson County clay. He allowed me to follow him as long as I didn’t get underfoot or make too much noise, two very difficult tasks for a child. But I tried, staying just behind the heel of his well worn brogans until the pull of throwing dirt clods or climbing trees proved too much to ignore. I loved my grandfather and his farm, loved hiding amongst the rows of corn, sneaking peaks at the hogs that both terrified and repulsed me. As I grew into young adulthood, I took the farm for granted, I thinking little of my experiences there other than occasional reminiscences and quaint stories I shared with college classmates or work colleagues.

A move to Oregon made me profoundly aware of my Southern roots. Somehow, moving to another part of the country was more jarring than studying abroad. Unable to find decent fried chicken, field peas, Texas Pete, sweet tea, collards, and anything resembling a biscuit eventually led me to leave the Pacific NW. (That and ridiculously  high home prices…) I returned to my native South with a greater appreciation of place and culture. Often the subject of ridicule, I grew to respect the perspective of old timers who spoke with a good sized chaw in one cheek and a half smile on other other, dirty overalls patched, long faded with sun. My smile, more often than not, evoked one in return from old men with blue eyes, whose skin was as dark as mine from years of toil in the sun.

A few years have rolled by and I now have that farm, along with a family, sheep, goats, and a laundry list of things that I want to do on this acreage.

Not a day goes past that I don’t think of my grandfather and his well worn boots. I am proud to say that after a few good years outside, my overalls have a few patches, too. I am comfortable in the feed store, and participate in conversations about feed efficiency and soil amendments with great interest. I think that he’d be proud.