Students tap into opportunity to learn about maple syrup
The students had just drilled a hole into the bark of a red maple standing in their school playground. Within moments, sap started dripping out.
Seventh-grader Hunter Casey caught some on the tip of his finger and put it in his mouth.
“It tastes like dirt!” he said.
His classmate, Matthew Mellish, also touched the bark but had a different reaction: “That stuff tastes good!”
Hunter and Matthew were among students at St. Luke Lutheran School who got a lesson yesterday on the tradition of turning maple sap into syrup.
It was probably only coincidental that yesterday was also National Pancake Day, at least according to restaurant chain IHOP.
The lesson was delivered by Todd Garcia-Bish, director of environmental education at Camp Lutherlyn in Prospect, and his wife, Shayne Garcia-Bish, a parent-volunteer at St. Luke, which the couple’s two children attend.
It was the first time the program was offered to the more than 200 students at St. Luke. Todd Garcia-Bish has been teaching it at Camp Lutherlyn since 1993.
With temperatures in the low 40s, it was a perfect day for tapping the trees, Shayne Garcia-Bish said. Below freezing temperatures at night and above freezing temperatures in the day are what’s needed to get the sap inside the trees flowing.
“It’s something really neat (that) not a lot of kids get to see,” Shayne Garcia-Bish said.
In Pennsylvania, nearby Somerset County has more than 100 syrup producers and is the largest producer of maple products in the state, said Susan Decker, a director of the Pennsylvania Maple Festival, being held this month in Meyersdale.
The season for collecting sap depends on the weather, but usually runs six to eight weeks, from late January or early February to the end of March or mid-April, Decker said.
That a number of red maples were standing right in St. Luke’s playground was convenient. Because the sugar content of their sap is not as high as sugar maples, it will take about 50 gallons of sap to be boiled down into a gallon of syrup, Shayne Garcia-Bish said.
The sap’s sugar content is about 2 percent. After the water is boiled away, it will skyrocket to about 65 percent sugar.
The students will get to taste the syrup made from their trees — on pancakes — later this month.
But the lesson’s goal was more than a sweet treat.
It covered subjects such as social studies, touching on Native American legends and pioneer history with maple sugaring; biology, with tree identification and photosynthesis; and math, in figuring out the circumference and diameter of the trees and the conversion rates of sap to syrup.
“Our kids need broad connections between science and their every day lives,” said Shayne Garcia-Bish, who had previously taught middle school science at Seneca Valley.
One of the things the students had to figure out was which trees were big enough to be tapped. Only trees more than 10 inches in diameter — or 32 inches in circumference — are tapped.
The larger the tree, the more taps it can support.
A lot of the “pancake syrup” that people eat is actually corn syrup, not maple syrup, Shayne Garcia-Bish said.
Todd Garcia-Bish said among those who try both, eight or nine out of 10 prefer real maple syrup.
There is a price difference. A gallon of maple syrup will cost $40 to $42, Decker said.
“When it says maple syrup you are getting maple syrup,” Decker said. “There’s no fructose, corn syrup, additives, colors or anything. You are paying for a pure product. If you ever eat it, you’ll never go back to Aunt Jemima.”
Eighth-grader Ben Andrews, 13, said it’s usually Log Cabin syrup that he pours on the big waffles that he makes in a waffle iron at home.
He was among students who peered into the bottom of a bucket, where a thin layer of syrup had collected under a disc of water that had frozen on top.
Todd Garcia-Bish took out the ice and broke it up for the students to sample.
“It’s a little sweet,” Ben said.
Ben said he doesn’t think he’s ever had real maple syrup.
“I’d like to try it,” he said.
What: 64th annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival
When: March 26-27; March 30-31; April 1-3
Where: Meyersdale, Somerset County
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.