By Dianne Bunis
PEPPERELL -- In early spring, when temperatures dip below freezing at night and rise above freezing by day, Kevin Ritchie, of Boggastowe Farm, knows it's time to tap the maple trees that dot his family's property and collect sap.
While this year's maple sugar season was off to a slow start due to the long, cold winter, Ritchie said the sap has been flowing for the past several weeks and sugar season is underway.
When it comes to making maple syrup, "It becomes second nature," said Ritchie, who has kept the tradition of producing maple syrup on the farm where he grew up. A member of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Ritchie learned maple sugaring from his parents and said, "I took an interest in it as a young Boy Scout." Although the farmhouse was originally built in the 1700s, the farm's unique name, chosen by Ritchie's mother, comes from the Native Americans who lived between Boggastowe Creek and the Great Black Swamp (along the western bank of the Charles River).
The tradition of collecting sap and producing syrup in New England has hardly changed since the Native Americans discovered it hundreds of years ago and shared it with early settlers.
Temperature is crucial, and, depending on the weather, the sap can start to flow as early as mid-February and last through mid-April.
"The sap generally flows for four to six weeks, with the best sap produced early on," Ritchie said.
"When the temperature remains above freezing and buds begin to form on the tree, it's time to stop collecting sap."
A hole is drilled into healthy, mature trees, a metal spout called a spile is inserted and a galvanized pail is hung to collect the sap, then Ritchie attaches a cover to the pail, "to keep out snow, rain and debris like leaves and bugs."
It takes 40 gallons of sap, according to Ritchie, to make just one gallon of natural syrup. The colorless sap, 98 percent water, 2 percent sugar, has a cool, light, sweet flavor with no hint of maple flavoring.
Collecting sap from 250 maple trees in Pepperell is no easy task, and Ritchie gets help from his 17-year-old son, Charlie. A North Middlesex High School junior and member of the track team, Charlie helps collect sap two to three evenings a week. "I tell everyone at school that I live on a farm and I make maple syrup, that's me!"
Pails containing sap are brought to the sugar house, where the sap goes through an evaporation process to turn it into syrup.
"In 2013, we produced 100 gallons of syrup from 4,000 gallons of sap, said Ritchie, who boils 60 gallons per hour in a wood-fired 75-gallon evaporator, using 20 cords of pine per season.
Weekend visitors to the maple sugar house see steam rising from its chimney, smell the delicate scent of maple in the air and watch Kevin Ritchie working magic as sap is boiled to a sweet, thick maple syrup.
According to Charlie, there is nothing better than his dad's homemade maple syrup on pancakes and knowing that a family tradition of maple sugaring has been passed down from his grandfather to his father. "I'll pass it on to my son, too," he said.
Boggastowe Farm and Bed and Breakfast is at 20 Shattuck St. Visitors are welcome, but call ahead at 978-433-5191. The farm sells pure maple syrup in various sizes.