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One drop at a time
Oliver collects sap from blue bags attached to tree taps. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
ALBANY - It may be spring break for Albany students, but there's no vacation when you're slaving for sap in quest of the perfect maple syrup.

That's what teacher Jamie Rupp has discovered, as he scrambles to wrap up a three-week project for his high school Introduction to Agriculture class before it gets too warm outside. He has drilled tree taps into 100 trees in both Albany and Monroe, where he lives, and is looking at 25 gallons of pure maple syrup - the byproduct of 1,000 gallons of sap.

The sap comes out fastest when the temperature ranges between 20 degrees overnight and no higher than 50 degrees during the day. Sunday night was the last time the conditions were optimum, and one single tree yielded nearly 2 gallons of sap overnight.

But that's the easy part. In order to reduce the sap to sugar, a long and intense burning procedure is needed. The sap, which is crystal clear like water, contains only an average of 2.5 percent sugar - therefore, it must be "cooked down." Afterward, only one-fortieth of the liquid is usable.

"It's a high-effort, low-reward process - that's for sure," said Rupp, whose students helped him build a maple arch - or firebox - for both outside the school in a smaller version for inside the classroom.

Senior Brennan Bloedel is among the students who have taken time out of their spring break to help stoke the fires during the cooking process.

"I knew nothing about making maple syrup and what I've learned is that there's a lot to it," said Bloedel, who assisted in a smaller version of the project last year and has been collecting bricks for the firebox ever since. "I've tasted the syrup and it's much better than what you typically buy in the store. It's sweeter than that."

Rupp got the idea for the project during his daily drive between Albany and Monroe as he passed the farm owned by Paul Barrett - a man known for his syrup endeavors.

"I saw the blue bags hanging from the trees and wondered what they were all about," Rupp said. "One day I decided to stop and ask and next thing I knew I was taking my students there for field trips."

A few weeks ago Rupp tapped a handful of trees near the school in Albany and along his 21st Street in Monroe. Then, sophomore student Travis Oliver asked his grandfather, Richard Oliver, if the class could tap trees on Richard's farm. The answer was yes, and suddenly another 67 taps were in motion.

"It'd always heard of people doing this, but I didn't know how fun it could be," said Travis Oliver, who is using the experiment as his senior Future Farmers of America project. "It's also been nice to connect with my grandpa during this. Usually, I would go out there to do a variety of chores but this has us working on the same thing."

Oliver has also been chopping wood at the farm - wood that is being used for the sap-burning fires.

"I don't mind the work," he said, "as long as I get to taste the sweet rewards."

It's the promise of a pint of syrup that has fueled a 100-percent "yes" response from those Rupp have asked to volunteer a maple tree for tapping.

"Everyone I've asked has said, "As long as I get some syrup, have at it,'" Rupp said.

Sara Wenger is among the neighbors of Rupp who allowed a tree to be tapped.

"He's actually on a second tree of mine," said Wenger, who lives in the 1300 block of 21st Street. "I am happy to be of help - and I can't even see a hole in the first tree, so I'm fine with it."

Rupp said he drills a hole that's only 5/16th of an inch in diameter. The tap goes in and a blue bag is hung from it in order to facilitate collecting the sap.

The project is an exercise in self-sufficiency, he said, and puts a focus on such for students who may have otherwise thought the concept is only for farmers.

"This is a rural area but some of the students live here in town, not on a farm, and I don't want them to feel left out," Rupp said. "They learn they can make use of something as basic as a tree in their yard.

"There's a lot more to agriculture than just the production agriculture, such as livestock and chickens. We want to encourage creativity."

All the students will receive a pint of maple syrup at the project's end, as will those who offered up a tree. Rupp estimated the class will bottle 220 pints, and what is left over will be available for sale at a likely price of $10.

"That may be a bit pricey, but we hope there will be feel-good-story buyers," Rupp said. "We want to take the idea of self-sustainability to the business side of the project and put money back into the project, instead of having to use money from the school budget."