After Slow Start, Pinkerton Sugar Shack is Boiling

After a slow start to the season, the Pinkerton Academy sugar shack was steaming last week as students turned their sap into syrup, and some students new to the work finally got to the see the end result of the process they’ve been learning about from start to finish.

It’s been a season where the students learn not just about their coursework, but how in the agricultural world you’re at the whim of the weather and have to plan accordingly.

It’s been a particularly cold end to the winter and the beginning of spring, and maple producers across the region have been checking taps and finding little. The maples need cold nights and warm days to produce the sap and that combination has happened only few and far between this year.

Pinkerton has been boiling down sap for years and it’s an expected activity at this time of year, but teacher Michelle Mize has been reworking her lesson plans and curriculum to accommodate the trees.

“You have to plan your tasks accordingly,” said Mize about the larger lessons the kids learn by taking part in classes centered on the outdoors.

Mize has about 60 students between her Forestry/Environmental Studies and Introduction to Natural Resources classes who take part in the sugaring effort.

Pinkerton Academy student Ty Brown, far left, shows a group of children how the evaporator at the school’s sugar shack works to produce maple syrup.
Pinkerton Academy student Ty Brown, far left, shows a group of children how the evaporator at the school’s sugar shack works to produce maple syrup.

Student Ty Brown noted relief last week that the class was finally putting it all together.

“It feels great. This is really the first day we’ve got in here to boil and see the final product,” said Brown, noting frustration with the season until then.

On Thursday, March 26, the program’s new sugar shack was full of maple-scented steam, with students chopping cordwood and groups of young tour-goers listening to the high school students explain what was going on.

The work has been made easier in the last couple years because of a new sugar shack, one with all the space and equipment to do good work, said Mize. The school boiled in the building last year, but the structure was only completed this year. Prior to that the students worked in their “Sugreen House” (Sugar and Greenhouse) and before that, a relatively cramped sugarhouse.

“It’s definitely optimized for what we need to do,” said Brown. “There’s a lot of great resources at this school.”

The class has 150 taps on campus and off, and that day expected to have about 140 gallons of sap to boil down.

Brown noted that the class could get more taps out, but it was a high priority to keep a healthy crop of trees into the future, and because some trees sustained damage over the winter, they will be left untapped until they’re healthy again.

After finishing up her first sugaring tour for a group of young home-schooled kids, senior Kaitlyn Lutinski said she’s enjoyed the work so far. It’s her first year in the program, but she had a good grasp of the work to share with the kids.

Lutinski has plans to study environmental science in college and noted that the Pinkerton classes offered a great foundation for those plans.

Brown, also a senior, has been in the program for three years and helped explain some of the more complicated aspects of the work during the tours.

The senior explained how to determine the sugar density with a hydrometer, why the sap needs to be brought to a specific temperature and how the time of year the sap was collected in affects the syrup’s taste.

“There’s a lot of science in this process, actually. I was extremely surprised about that when I first got into it,” said Brown.

But if you’re looking for some of the Pinkerton Academy syrup and don’t yet know where you might get it, you should probably look elsewhere. The syrup is a prized commodity, and is closely protected by the program, especially in a slow year like this one. To get some you should make sure you’re already in the classes that make it, or a leader of the school, as even teachers have a hard time securing the finished product.

“There’s definitely a high demand for the syrup on campus,” noted Brown.