Colrain’s Sunrise Farms uses solar-powered electric evaporator

  • Jordan Lively and his brother, Erik Lively, with their electric evaporator at Sunrise Farms in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • John Hannum checks the syrup while Todd Sanford loads the arch at John’s Maple in Whately. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Erik Lively explains the grading system for syrup at Sunrise Farms in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jordan Lively checks the syrup coming from the electric evaporator at Sunrise Farms in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • John Hannum of John’s Maple in Whately with his reverse osmosis machine that removes roughly half the water from the raw sap. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A fully operational electric sugarhouse with no steam rising at Sunrise Farms in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Syrup boils in the pan at John’s Maple in Whately. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Solar panels power the sugar house at Sunrise Farms in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • John’s Maple in Whately. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2020 9:56:54 PM
Modified: 2/21/2020 9:56:39 PM

Photos hanging in the kitchen of Sunrise Farms in Colrain show five generations of family sweating over a wood-fired maple syrup evaporator, but this year the Lively family is changing tradition with its first season using a fully solar-powered electric evaporator.

On Thursday, Erik Lively and his family were working on their second boil of the season with the fully electric machine. The “eco vap” uses electricity to heat the sap. It creates steam and the steam is captured and compressed, heating the sap to a boiling point instead of using a wood or gas-fired evaporator.

“We started tapping our trees on Jan. 28,” Lively said. “Our first boil was on Feb. 6.”

Sugaring season in Franklin County typically starts in late January or early February, when nights are still cold, but days are warming up. It typically ends around mid-April — some years earlier, some later. The entire month of March is usually the peak of maple sugaring season, earning the distinction of being Massachusetts Maple Month.

The family farm, which is run by Erik, his brother Jordan, and their parents Marilyn and Rockwell “Rocky” Lively, produces certified organic maple syrup and other maple products each year. With the new electric evaporator, they will be able to boil their sap with power from the farm’s solar panels, reducing the farm’s carbon footprint by creating zero emissions, Lively said. They are among the first farms in the state to use an electric evaporator.

While the family said it was an $85,000 investment, they feel it was worth it. Not only is the new machine eco-friendly, Lively said it is “one of the most efficient evaporators on the market.” The machine produces approximately 15 gallons of syrup an hour and has an estimated operating cost of $3 to $4 an hour. The cost efficiency and other data is displayed on the evaporator’s monitor.

Learning curve

The family said there is a learning curve to the new system, and it comes with its own challenges. For example, the machine blew a fuse Wednesday, and Lively had to drive all the way to Holyoke for a replacement.

A benefit, Lively said, is that the machine’s steam system and controlled temperature will avoid burning any sap or pans.

“It should make better syrup and lighter syrup,” Lively said.

Lighter sap runs early in the season and darker tends to run later, but sugarers don’t know what they’re going to get until it happens. As the maple season carries on, batches of syrup tend to come out darker because the temperature and bacteria in the sap changes.

The lighter syrup is typically what most people like, but it is all personal preference, Lively said. Golden syrup is light with a delicate, mild flavor, while amber is full-bodied with a stronger flavor. Dark has a robust flavor and very dark is best for cooking.

“Personally, I love amber syrup,” Lively said. “Darker syrup can be used for glazed ham or baked goods.”

Sunrise Farms, Lively said, operates on roughly 480 acres and has thousands of taps. Ninety percent of them feed directly back to the sugar house. Last year, the farm produced 1,432 gallons of syrup. In 2018, they produced 1,438, 2017 saw 1,505 and 2016 yielded 1,520 gallons. While Lively said it was hard to tell if global warming has affected the maple season, they are still happy to do their part to go green.

“It’s not your traditional boil,” Lively acknowledged. “But we saw on the radar that some change needs to happen.”

With the change in technology comes a change in tradition, and a loss of some nostalgic aspects. It doesn’t keep the sugar house warm. The Livelys had to install a small wood-burning heater and they wear their jackets as they operate the new machine. The electric evaporator also lacks the plume of sweet-smelling smoke and steam.

“People used to see steam from the road and know we were boiling,” Lively said.

Wood-fired tradition

Farther south, in Whately, John Hannum and Todd Sanford were working on their own maple boil the old-fashioned way as smoke and steam billowed out of the “John’s Maple” sugar house. The Whately maple business used to operate as “J&J Maple” but changed names after Hannum’s business partner moved to South Carolina two years ago.

“To me, this is sugaring,” Sanford said before throwing more wood in the stove.

Hannum, who also works as the Whately fire chief, said he operates with thousands of taps between two local orchards. The sap is fed to the sugar house by a high-volume vacuum system, he said. Back at the sugar shack, the sap is briefly kept in a holding tank beneath ultraviolet lights to help kill bacteria.

The sap from the holding tank goes through a reverse osmosis machine, through which a semi-permeable membrane separates water and sugar molecules. Sap that is 2 percent sugar will be 12 percent sugar by the time it comes out of the reverse osmosis machine, Hannum said.

Next, the sap is boiled in the evaporator until it reaches 219 degrees, thickening and turning to syrup, and a filter press helps to remove “sugar sand” from the syrup. The finished syrup is then reheated to be stored in sealed metal drums for wholesale or into classic plastic jugs typically recognized at stores.

While Hannum considers it more of a lifelong hobby, his sugar house produced around 850 gallons of syrup two seasons ago. Hannum said he sold most of the sap from his trees to other producers last year, and didn’t boil a lot himself, but this year they will be doing more boiling again. Meanwhile, his wife, Lori, uses some of the syrup for baked goods, which are sold at craft fairs and farmers markets along with bottles of syrup.

Sanford and Hannum said they finished tapping trees a couple of weeks ago. While the maple season isn’t fully in swing, Sanford said he think its only a couple of weeks away from the peak conditions.

“Now we’re just walking around and checking the lines,” Hannum said.

On Friday, March 6, Sunrise Farms will host the 2020 Massachusetts Maple Producers Association sugaring season kickoff event at 10 a.m. Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux will tap the ceremonial “first tree” and read a proclamation from the governor. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, will also attend.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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