The Somerville Maple Syrup Project:
Maple Project History: 2000 to Today
The idea for the Somerville Maple Syrup Project was born one fall day in the late 1990’s at Gaining Ground, Inc. the Growing Center’s partner farm in Concord, MA. Somerville High School (SHS) vocational teacher Frank Carey had been visiting the farm with his students as part of a hands-on Buildings & Grounds Maintenance experiential class. Together with Gaining Ground farmer Mark Waltermire, who tapped trees at his own yard and at friends’ yards and had all the necessary equipment, the students explored the possibility of collecting maple sap at the Growing Center and other areas throughout the City. The first tapping and boil-down was in March, 2000; they tapped trees at the Growing Center and in the yard of Lisa Brukilacchio, the City’s Green Space Coordinator and that of her neighbor, and used a basic “furnace” made out of cinderblocks. The following year they connected with Tufts University to tap trees on campus, and Carey’s students built from scratch a metal furnace that retained heat better than the cinderblock one. That year, 2001, they collected 120 gallons from 11 trees, yielding three gallons of syrup! The project grew from there, and by 2008, it had become one of the Growing Center’s most successful programs.
Tapping would begin in February and last 4-5 weeks. Combined with a weeks-long comprehensive educational program for elementary schoolchildren, the project would culminate in a multi-day public boil-down event in early March.
Like many Growing Center enterprises, the Maple Syrup Project has always been a community collaboration. Carey, Waltermire and Brukilacchio brought in partners like Tufts University, Somerville Public Schools (SPS), the School Food Service, and even the Department of Public Works (who would haul the shared equipment to and from Gaining Ground several times each year) and organizations like Groundwork Somerville and the Eagle Eye Institute. The Maple Boil also wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the diligence and creativity of Carey’s metal-shop students who back in 2006 constructed a more permanent fire box and state-of-the-art evaporator pan needed for the boiling process.
For a little over a dozen years, first under the auspices of the Growing Center and then under Groundwork Somerville, the project provided hands-on environmental education to nearly 250 high school and elementary students every year. When Groundwork Somerville took over the project in 2009, they made it into a month-long educational project with SPS, culminating in a 2-day boil - one day being a school group visit day with several hundred SPS students visiting, the second being a big event open to the public.
The educational component of the project was comprehensive. Volunteer educators, many of them Tufts University undergrads, would lead a four-week arts and sciences curriculum to SPS 2nd graders in several of Somerville’s public elementary schools, after being trained by Groundwork Somerville staff and being equipped with lesson plans and materials.
They would often lead educational activities for the public at the boil-down event, too. This educational program in the schools would explore the historic, economic, and scientific roots of this New England tradition, while also incorporating valuable math and language skills. Lessons covered broader cultural and historic themes related to Native American food systems, Massachusetts agriculture, climate change and, touching on subsidized corn syrup production, the story of the industrial food complex. Educators would always look forward to this valuable learning opportunity each year.
In the early days, the Growing Center also enlisted the help of community members for sap collection and boiling. Residents were encouraged to “volunteer” their trees for tapping, which in turn increased awareness of the importance of trees among Somerville youth and adults alike. Indeed, the sap buckets on trees near the Tufts campus are a testimony of the project’s cooperative spirit and success.
Today, the project is back under the umbrella of the Somerville Community Growing Center. We still use the handmade metal fire box made by Carey’s students with the evaporator pan, boiling the sap for 12+ hours until it’s concentrated as much as it can be onsite. Then we finish the process where it can be more closely controlled in a local restaurant kitchen (Himalayan Kitchen in 2022).
We began tapping the first week of February and collect upwards of 130 gallons which get refrigerated at a local restaurant (Aeronaut brewery in 2022).
How Does the Process Work?
After the maple tree has shed its leaves for the season and winter has set in, the tree absorbs back its sap through pores that connect to cells that act like veins running up the trunk to its branches and down to the roots of the tree. You could say the tree is in hibernation mode, recharging and reenergizing itself with the liquid sap running through its core. When the weather begins to thaw, the sap is transported down the tree through these cell highways via gravity, and will flow right out a tap hole.
There’s a careful science to tapping trees responsibly to avoid injuring the tree and to allow for the best yield. Trees are not usually tapped when they are less than 12” in diameter, giving them time to grow. A large tree can support 2-4 taps. Taps are moved year to year (several inches from the last tapping hole).
Maple tapping and syrup production making did not start with colonists/settlers. There is a long history of tribes in the U.S. and Canada tapping and boiling maple sap for medicine/food, syrup having nutritional benefits - and using it as currency and for trade. There are many stories in Indigenous Traditions regarding the discovery and boiling of sap. There is also a gratitude to the trees (seen as ancestors, or kin) and actions of reciprocity for what the trees have given people/animals and all living things.
Why Do We Continue the Tradition?
At the annual public Maple Boil every March, youth and adults alike would have a chance to learn about tree anatomy and physiology, experience first-hand the process of making fresh maple syrup, and, of course, enjoy tasty maple treats. The syrup produced at the event would be given as thank-you gifts to key partners and used for fundraising for both the Growing Center and Groundwork Somerville.
The Maple Syrup Project has always challenged and informed our perspectives about the roles and functions of urban trees, in a way that engages Somerville residents both young and old. And it is an exciting outdoor activity that adds a bit of community warmth during the winter months, a time when many residents do not ordinarily consider using Somerville’s open spaces. It has always been a true community experience; some student attendees and community members even returned to the Growing Center as volunteers.
The Growing Center gives thanks to all the maple trees, who each year give us such a sweet treat. May we learn to live in gratitude and in the spirit of reciprocity with the natural world for the many gifts she gives us.
And in an acknowledgment of the land, Tufts University recognizes that it is located on colonized Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Massachusett Tribe traditional territory. The Somerville Community Growing center sits on Massachusett Tribe Traditional territory.