Green 101: Permaculture Sugaring


In honor of the first day of Spring, I came across an interested article on maple sugaring at Farming the Woods, via Upstate Permaculture Network*. The article in full talks about the entire process of sugaring, but I was especially interested in the Permaculture-centric notes at the end. When practicing what seems like a totally natural endeavor, like gardening or sugaring, it’s a good exercise to examine the process from a Permaculture point-of-view, to see how our practices can be made as sustainable as possible.

Permaculture decisions

While sugaring is a timeless practice and has much iteration I wanted to comment briefly on how my background in Permaculture has affected my methods, though the conclusions I’ve come to are not necessarily unique to Permaculture thinking.

1. Small scale (non-commercial) is most sustainable

In my opinion, tapping 5 – 100 trees is the most sustainable in terms of personal health and well-being. It becomes really difficult to scale up to a commercial operation without compromising values. For instance, most of the larger producers utilize vacuum systems that actually draw up to 25% more sap from trees; which is questionable when considering the long term health effect this might have on the trees. It also takes an incredible amount of wood to boil the sap from so many trees, which can compromise efforts to thin the woods in a healthy way. In Permaculture, we differentiate between agricultural systems that are appropriate for scaling up to commercial production, versus those who are better on a scale to produce mostly for personal consumption (with a small surplus to share)

Small-scale, non-commercial operations that utilize waste wood (see below) are better able to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient systems.

2. Climate Change makes sugaring even more variable

Sunset view from the boiling camp

The spring thaw has always been highly variable, but our changing climate provides another layer of complexity when sugaring. There will likely be banner years and really poor years, as well. Some experts predict that sugarers in upstate New York will be tapping closer to Christmas by the end of the century. And, the Sugar Maple itself is projected to do poorly with climate change, as the seeds of the tree need at least 120 days below freezing to germinate. In much of New York, at least, the Sugar Maple population is projected to decline significantly over the next 100 years. This is sad fact in the context of the long tradition and legacy of sugaring. Yet we can work to limit negative effects on remaining stands, attempt efforts to support maple regeneration, and enjoy and celebrate this wonderful process while we can.

3. Practical Matters: Relative Location & Gravity systems

My background in Permaculture led me to think a lot about the principle of relative location is setting up multiple sugarbush systems. Making use of gravity saves a lot of time and effort – especially in tubing systems. But even when collecting buckets, it makes sense to start at the top of the hill, and work down. It’s also well worth putting the sugarshack (the place you boil) in as close a proximity to the woods you are tapping, and ideally at the bottom of the hill. We debated several locations on our farm before ultimately deciding that proximity was the most important factor in our planning.

4. Ethical use of Materials

Scrap wood heats the boiler.

In Permaculture, we try to recognize that outside materials that are not biological in nature always come from somewhere else, and take energy inputs (fossil fuels) to create. It is thus important to invest into durable materials that are long lasting. While it’s cheaper (at least short term) to use plastic buckets, we know they won’t last nearly as long as their metal counterparts. We can also make use of used materials (old metal buckets) that in addition to standing the test of time, don’t increase demand for new manufacturing.

5. Wood: Waste = Food

Sugaring takes a lot of wood for boiling, period. So where we source our wood can have great implications not matter what scale we are working at. Since we’ve scaled our system to a smaller (100 tap) operation, we are able to make use of waste materials as our firewood; each season we head to two local saw mills and purchase a few trailer loads of black locust slabs (from one) and the ends and scrap of Red Oak (from the other). Pine and other softwoods are also good candidates for a sugar fire, since they are not appropriate for burning inside the house. It has been our decision that all sugaring will be done with wood that others consider waste, as it is an appropriate use of resources.

Further, good forest management can also be arguably provide a good source of wood for sugaring. As much as many landowners would like to conduct timber stand improvements, which are a boon to forest health and necessary due to a long legacy of forest abuse, it’s hard to find the incentive to conduct these thinning. The promise of sweet syrup is enough to get anyone out of their chair and into the woods.

Final Thoughts

Author Steve Gabriel teaches school children about maple sugaring.

Maple Sugaring is a timeless and rewarding practice. It offers an opportunity to connect with the wonders of the spring that, while reaping a sweet reward for our efforts. While some initial investment is needed, the right choice of equipment and system design can offer decades of harvesting success. If you have further questions or discussion points, don’t hesitate to email me at

This article is an excerpt from an upcoming book by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel, titled Farming the Woods: Temperate Forest Farming & Permaculture Strategies. The book will be published in Spring of 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing. You can read more excerpts, and support the book through our fundraising campaign by visiting

*I wanted to be sure to note that I discovered the sugaring article via Upstate Permaculture Network. Since I personally know how much time, effort and creativity goes into curating a blog, it’s always nice to be recognized as the initial source of information. If a blogger simply lurks on others’ blogs with the sole purpose of essentially skimming content to repost on their own blogs as if they discovered it themselves, it reeks of disingenuity, plagiarism…and non-creativity. I understand that the world of blogging includes finding inspiration in others work, but my advice is – if you’re going to be a true patron of the arts, give credit where credit’s due! Because of some recent content skimming, I’ve added a “reposting and comments policies” section at the top of my homepage, so that there’s no confusion. Please contact me directly if you have any questions.

Photos and article excerpt from Farming the Woods

4 responses to “Green 101: Permaculture Sugaring

  1. Our neighbor across the street was busy boiling down sap last weekend. It was a nice sign of spring. However, we got 8″ of snow last night, so it looks like winter still. The groundhog was wrong!

  2. I am so interested in sugaring some of the black walnut trees in my area. They have been sugared traditionally and they are totally abundant and create stands of ONLY black walnuts in some cases… but probably not this year. I’m just learning about it, totally interested, and love eating local sorghum! 🙂

    • Ooh! Keep me posted on sugaring black walnuts…what an interesting idea!

      All I really know about black walnuts is that you shouldn’t plant them too close to where you’re growing crops because of a chemical from their roots…Their stands are REALLY impressive though!

      • Oh yeah they are! Black walnuts taste amazing, but are a mess to crack! 🙂 I think sugaring them takes a lot of sap, but for a person with a huge stand of black walnuts it would be great! I’ll try to find someone in the area doing it… I’d love to try it.

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