BY RYAN TRARES
For The Republic
Like ghosts poking out from behind the trees, hundreds of white buckets dotted the wooded landscape behind Riley Family Farms.
Each bucket hung from a pair of spigots tapped into the silver, sugar and ash-leaved maple trees. On a normal late February day, the containers would be filling with the clear sap that eventually becomes maple syrup.
But an unusual blast of warm weather crimped the late winter flow.
“Normally, we’d be fully flowing right now,” said Crissy Riley. “I love this weather. I wish it was like this all year round, except when we’re doing syrup.”
Maple syrup is a specialty on the Rileys’ Edinburgh farm. When the weather is right, they spend hours collecting the sap from 300 maple trees in buckets, then simmering it over an open fire to burn it down to its sticky sweet essence.
The result is a small-batch production of pure maple syrup — no preservatives, nothing added — that has become a smash at Franklin’s farmers market. Mel’s Marvelous Maple Syrup is so popular, and supply so limited, that the family has started limiting people to one bottle per customer.
“If I’m the cook, it’s to my taste,” said Mel Riley, owner of the farm and head of the maple syrup production. “We have our own flavor.”
Indiana won’t be surpassing maple syrup heavyweights such as Maine, New York and Vermont any time soon. But the state has a syrup industry, mostly made up of hobbyists and small farmers who harvest it for fun and sell what they don’t use.
Last year, Indiana maple farmers produced 12,000 gallons of syrup, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That represents .3 percent of all the syrup produced in the U.S.
The Indiana Maple Syrup Association boasts 146 members, and maple syrup producers can be found in 38 Indiana counties, according to Dave Hamilton, president of the association. In Indiana, about 60,000 trees were tapped last year, an increase of 2 percent from 2015.
Syrup is a relatively new game for the Riley family.
Mel Riley had owned a landscaping business for more than 60 years, and he wanted to start a nursery when he and his wife, Sandy, bought the farm in the 1980s. Though the nursery never came to fruition, they did start growing fruits and vegetables in their farm gardens and selling the produce locally.
Their son, Mark Riley, and his wife, Crissy, have taken a more active role in the farm in the past year. Together with their children, 12-year-old Devin and 10-year-old Lexi, they’ve been involved with everything from harvesting gardens to caring for goats to making jellies and jams out of their produce.
The maple syrup operation is Mel Riley’s specialty, though. A pastor taught him how to tap maple trees about 15 years ago, showing him how to drill a hole in the tree just deep enough, to pound in a tap and hang the bucket so the sap collected.
That year, they used the syrup they had boiled down at their church’s pancake breakfast. Eventually, Mel Riley decided to try tapping his own maple stand.
The result was more syrup than they could use at the church breakfast. So the family found another outlet: the Franklin Farmers Market. Along with flowers, fresh produce and homemade jams and jellies, the Riley family started offering bottles of their syrup.
Like any other farmer, the Rileys watch the weather closely to determine when it’s syrup season. The sap will only flow from the trees during specific conditions: the sun has to be shining brightly, and while the daytime temperatures have to be above 40 degrees, nighttime temperatures have to get down below freezing.
“The cold and the warm is like a pump that pumps the tree for us,” Crissy Riley said.
Once the weather is right, they come out to their trees, drill holes about 2 inches deep and hammer in taps on the southwest side of the trunk. Sap flows best from that side because the afternoon sun hits it, Crissy Riley said.
Buckets hang from those taps, and every day the family is checking.
“We could get a gallon in a day, or a quarter-gallon a day per tap,” Crissy Riley said.
The process is a totally family affair. Mel Riley is the mastermind, but everyone pitches in. Mark Riley has been drilling holes in the trees for the past two years. Devin hammers in the tap. Lexi and Crissy Riley hang the buckets.
All of them run around and empty the sap as it fills up, and Mel and Sandy Riley cook and bottle.
“We do it old school. We don’t have the tubes running out of the trees into a big vat. It’s all done by hand, with the kids collecting it,” Sandy Riley said. “It’s tree-to-table.”
Once the trees are tapped and the sap starts flowing, the syrup production process goes non-stop.
The sap that fills the buckets is clear and looks like water. But it’s sticky and thick, with a bitter taste. Not until most of the liquid has been boiled off does that sweet maple syrup flavor emerge, Mark Riley said.
When the Rileys have collected approximately 50 gallons of sap, it’s time to cook.
Emptied into galvanized pans, the syrup is boiled over an open flame for hours at a time. They triple-filter the sap, to get all of the impurities in the sap out.
To get one gallon of maple syrup, it takes 60 gallons of sap, Crissy Riley said. The fire will burn off almost all of the water from the sap, leaving only dark-colored, sugary syrup.
Mel Riley is the primary cook. In the past, he’d cook all through the night, staying up to watch the fire and taste test it to see when it was done.
As he’s gotten older, he’s stopped staying up all night. But he’s still the official taster.
Once the open fire has cooked down the liquid into a syrup, the Rileys bring it to their house to finish it off. Using a propane turkey fryer, they simmer it even further at a controlled temperature to refine it without scorching.
Finally, the batch is brought to the stove top in a stock pot, cooked to 200 degrees and bottled.
Each tree produces a different flavor and texture of syrup. Silver maple produces a lighter, airier liquid, while sugar maple is darker and more robust.
Because it’s cooked over an open flame, the syrup retains that smokey flavor of a campfire.
With a small operation and unpredictable weather, the Rileys’ production varies. One year, they made enough for 36 8-ounce bottles. A few years later, they had 20 cases — 240 bottles.
So far in 2017, they have produced enough for 18 bottles.
Whatever they can bottle up will be available at the Franklin Farmers Market once it starts up in mid-May. The family has also created a roadside farm stand where people can stop by.
“We’re not a big enough production to sell it by the gallon, and if we did that, we’d have to put preservatives in it. I don’t want to do that. It takes away from everything that we love about it,” Crissy Riley said.
Despite the warm snap, the Rileys have been carefully watching the forecast for colder days. They’re confident central Indiana will have a frigid snap that will once again have the maple trees flowing.
“You hate to say, ‘I hope it gets colder,’ but it would be nice to have a little more cold,” Sandy Riley said.
Where: 7505 E. CR 650 S, Edinburgh
Operators: Mel and Sandy Riley, Mark and Crissy Riley
Farm size: About 40 acres
Maple taps: About 300
Types of maple trees: Silver, sugar and ash-leaved
Information: RileyFamilyFarm.com or facebook.com/TheRileyFamilyFarm
In 1916, Indiana was the leading maple syrup-producing state in the country, according to information distributed to the North American Maple Syrup Association at their 2002 meeting.
Maple syrup can be made anywhere sugar maple trees grow and where there is freezing and thawing in the spring.
Syrup can be made from many different types of trees, including other maples, sycamore and birch. But the sugar maple is the one with the highest sugar content in the sap.
Maple syrup is made in the spring when the nights are still freezing but daytime temperatures reach 40 degrees or so. Tapping the trees catches some of the sap as it rises to the tops of the trees.
It takes about 60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Indiana reported 60,000 maple syrup taps in 2016, producing 12,000 gallons of syrup.
Last year, maple syrup season in Indiana opened on Jan. 19, and closed on March 28.
— Information from the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Indiana Maple Syrup Association