2014-03-13 / News

Tapping for sap begins at Hodgkiss Farm

By Ken Shane

Many New Englanders are familiar with the bucket method of collecting sap, but Hodgkiss Farm has tubing connecting its maple trees along North Road, a more modern system. 
Photo by Jeff McDonough Many New Englanders are familiar with the bucket method of collecting sap, but Hodgkiss Farm has tubing connecting its maple trees along North Road, a more modern system. Photo by Jeff McDonough People passing by North Road’s Hodgkiss Farm may have noticed tubing that runs between a number of the trees closest to the road, and wondered what they were seeing. As it turns out, those tubes are part of the collection process in a maple sugaring effort that is ongoing at the farm.

Harry Chase owns and manages Hodgkiss Farm with his wife Gail, as well as another farm in Portsmouth. He has tapped the trees himself in the past, but more recently permission has been given to Jamestown resident David Hosley to do the harvest. Payment for this permission comes in the form of maple syrup.

“We are paid generously in syrup and last year’s supply is just about gone,” Chase said. “So far he’s collected over 160 gallons of sap, which will yield only about 4 gallons of precious finished product.”

When most people think about maple syrup, their thoughts turn north to Vermont. That’s understandable given the fact that our New England neighbors are the biggest producers of syrup, making more than 1,320,000 gallons in 2013. What most people may not realize is that Canada is by far the world’s leading producer of maple syrup. More than 10 million gallons were made there last year, most of it in Quebec. The Canadian output represents 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup production.

Other U.S. states that produce marketable quantities of maple syrup are Maine, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut. And then there is Rhode Island. Yes, Rhode Island, like all other New England states, produces maple syrup. Much of that production comes from the southern part of the Ocean State.

Native Americans in what is now the northeastern United States are known to have produced maple syrup long before Europeans ever arrived on the scene. No one quite knows how or why maple syrup production began, so the origins of the process have become the stuff of legend. What is known is there was ritual associated with the process, and that the Sugar Moon – the first full moon of spring – was celebrated with a Maple Dance.

When the Europeans arrived, the Native Americans began to teach them how to tap trees and process syrup, much as they did with so many other elements of life in the new world. By 1680, Europeans were harvesting maple products. Instead of making an incision in the tree bark, as Native Americans did, the Europeans used augers to make a hole in the tree. It wasn’t long before maple syrup was used as the primary form of concentrated sugar, since cane sugar had to be imported from the West Indies.

Around the time of the Civil War, processors began to use large flat metal sheet pans because they provided a greater surface area for evaporation. The first evaporator was patented in 1958. It was also around this time that cane sugar began to replace maple syrup as the primary sweetener in the United States.

There have been many technological advances in maple syrup production over the years, but the basic process remains the same as it was centuries ago: tap the trees, collect the sap, boil.

There is not a lot of maple syrup produced in southern Rhode Island, and no single producer makes enough for it to be their sole means of support. The producers here that are committed to the intricate process, however, have been at it for many years.

Hodgkiss Farm was formerly owned by John J. Watson and was known as Watson South Farm. At the time the farm was nearly 150 acres. Watson had no children and passed the farm down to his niece Elizabeth when she married George Hodgkiss in the late 1940s. The farm was renamed Hodgkiss Farm. Much of the farm’s waterfront land was donated to the Nature Conservancy reducing the size of the farm to its present 65 acres. Gail, who is Elizabeth Hodgkiss’ daughter, later inherited the farm. The majority of the farm is protected from development.

“I’m very proud to be part of the four farms that are permanently protected from development in the center of Jamestown,” Chase said.

Chase said he began collecting sap on the farm about 15 years ago with borrowed buckets. He describes it as an educational project for himself and his children. A homemade sap boiler was used to reduce the sap and make small amounts of syrup.

Currently about 25 of the farm’s trees are being tapped. The lines between them serve to centralize the operation so that each tree doesn’t need its own bucket. Some of the property’s remote trees are still tapped in the traditional fashion, however. Around this time of the year, when the weather begins to get warmer, the sap begins to run and the harvest takes place. Climate change is already having an impact on sap collection.

“It’s absolutely a labor of love,” Chase said. “Nobody makes any money off this stuff, even guys tapping thousands of trees. Sadly it takes a huge amount of energy to boil down the sap at a ratio of 40 to 1.”

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