Buchanan Community Schools – Tapping Trees

Maple Sugar Shack, March 2021, Photo by Rebecka Hoyt

Maple Syrup – A School and Family Tradition

By Rebecka Hoyt

Every school year the Buchanan 4th graders and the virtual learning students get to tap the sugar maple trees at Life Action Camp in Buchanan, MI. They use special hand held tools to drill a little hole into the tree then hang a metal bucket from that spot to collect the sap around the middle of a cold February. The temperature of 32 degrees at night keeps the trees pumping the sap and as the day approaches, and the temperatures get into the 40’s the sap flows quickly! The students also gather sap before they boil it down. Retired principal of Moccasin Elementary Mark Nixon is the main guy at Buchanan School Farm out on Andrews Rd. here in Buchanan. Because of the pandemic, parents are not on the field trip with the classes, and so they have volunteers from the School Board and administrators including the superintendent, assistant superintendent and principals to come help on the farm.

While on the School Farm, a group of kids gather wood and learn how to split the wood with a wedge and maul and also some hacksaws while they put smaller pieces of wood onto makeshift sawhorses. Safety equipment is provided, as is the watchful eyes of school staff. Another group of kids get to go in the sugar shack, which isn’t very big and this is where they learn how the sap turns into maple syrup. Once they are in the sugar shack, Mr. Nixon tells them rules of what is very hot and what not to touch. They have 100 gallons on the school’s truck full of sap that then gets pulled up into the top of the sugar shack through a hose and big container above the boiling syrup bins. Under the syrup bins is the stove, where students get a chance to throw in firewood very carefully to help the syrup boil. A hydrometer is used to measure the sugar percent, not the temperature of the syrup. When it gets to 37%, it is ready. It then gets stored in gallons. The kids are excited to have a small sample from last year’s syrup that was still very good! They produce about 20-25 gallons of maple syrup each year, which is dependent on the weather.

Mark Nixon demonstrates using the hydrometer, March 2021, Photo by Rebecka Hoyt

Mr. Nixon also shows the students three kinds of syrup: (1) a regular bottle of Log Cabin Syrup that has High Fructose Corn Syrup, (2) a clear bottle of Corn Syrup, and (3) the all natural maple syrup. He will then ask the kids questions about each one. When they learn that the all natural maple syrup is in a smaller bottle than the store brand and the price is more than the regular bottle of pancake syrup, they are amazed because it takes longer to produce and does not have any chemicals/additives in it.

Since Mr. Nixon has been retired for the last 3-4 years, I asked him, what stands out to him when the kids are here on the farm or when they are tapping the trees? Mark says, “It amazes them (kids) with the sap coming out of the tree and they say, “Wow!” When they taste the syrup that comes out of the tree with pancakes, kids using the tools and power drills for those who have special needs, and the knowledge they have of power drills (because they have one at home), and that hands on is the most important way for them to learn!”

The school farm normally has a “Farm Day” in the spring, however, it is cancelled for this year. They give syrup to pay debts to Life Action Camp at Fuller’s.

Not only does tree tapping happen at Fuller’s, but as you take a drive through the neighborhoods in Buchanan, you will find buckets at the bases of seven trees in the 300 block of Detroit Street. 

Vergnon Family on Detroit St in Buchanan with their tapped trees, March 2021, Photo by Rebecka Hoyt

The Vergnon family, Chris, Mara and their 11 year-old daughter, Emma carry-on the tradition that they learned when Chris and Mara attended Buchanan schools. They have been doing it for the past 7-8 years in front of his parents home. For every 40 gallons of sap that they collect, they make 1 gallon of maple syrup. They are also tapping their black walnut trees at their house outside of town and those produce 50 to 1 compared to the sugar maples on Detroit Street. When tapping trees every year, Chris says “You have to tap in a different spot. The tree will heal itself and the hole will close.” A spile or a tap, and they are hammered in with a hose attached to it, and then goes into the lid of the food-grade white buckets that sit on the ground. Emma uses her muscles quite well as Mom and Dad do too, while carrying the buckets of sap to the big container in the back of their pickup truck to take home and boil.

“This is what the syrup looks like while boiling. It often foams up and we use a mesh scoop to clear the foam off,” says Mara Vergnon. Syrup boiling in pot on stove, Photo submitted by Mara Vergnon.

So, what do they do with the syrup? Emma, their daughter, says “Tasting it and putting the hot maple syrup over vanilla ice cream.” “We also give it as gifts to our family and friends,” says Mom, Mara.

Just another way of keeping traditions alive from school to family.

Fun Facts:
Graphics from Michigan Department of Agriculture 2021
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