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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Making Maple Syrup at a farm in Mashantucket

    Farm supervisor Mike Martins climbs up a ladder as he keeps an eye on the vortex evaporator as they start to make maple syrup at the sugar shack at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Agriculture Department Manager Jeremy Whipple puts more wood in the vortex evaporator a the sugar shack at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Farm supervisor Mike Martins keeps an eye on the vortex evaporator as they start to make maple syrup at the sugar shack at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The sugar shack and bottling facility at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sap lines run between trees at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Bottled maple syrup from the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Agriculture Department Manager Jeremy Whipple uses a hydrometer to check the sugar levels of sap at at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Farm supervisor Mike Martins gathers more wood for the evaporator as they start to make maple syrup at the sugar shack at the Mashantucket Pequots’ Meechooôk Farm on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mashantucket ― On the wall of a syrup-producing shack owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe’s Meechooôk Farm, a sign on the wall read: Weekapaheekamuq. In the Mohegan-Pequot dialect, the word means sugar shack.

    On Sunday, as steam filled up that sugar shack, Farm Manager Jeremy Whipple and Farm Supervisor Mike Martins, both tribal members, watched closely as sap boiled away on this year’s inaugural day of maple syrup production.

    The shack has been there since the mid-1970s, when, aiming for self-sufficiency, members established the farm and started producing, harvesting and selling products such as firewood and vegetables.

    “That’s how we made our living back then, before the casino,” Whipple said of Foxwoods Resort Casino, which opened in 1992.

    As part of that same push, tribal members also started making their own maple syrup at the humble sugar shack.

    “It’s a staple in our community,” Whipple said.

    Every year in March, to honor the tribe’s traditional Maple Sugar Moon, it holds a pancake breakfast where it uses the syrup, offers prayers and thanks the creator for giving the harvest of sap.

    Whipple said he learned how to make the syrup from his uncles in the early 1990s. Planted to the left of the shack, you can see a photo of young Whipple with his uncles, carrying bags of syrup, what was back then their means of transporting the syrup back to the boiler.

    Now, the farm has tapped close to 3,000 trees between two locations ― this one, and one at Lake of Isles, a 36-hole golf course also owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Whipple said his goal is to add another 8,000, and get as much syrup as possible.

    “With the warming of the climate, it’s getting hard to predict when to start tapping,” he said. “When I was a kid, it was the end of February into March.”

    This year, the farm started tapping trees in the beginning of January, Whipple said.

    “We’re in prime season right now,” he said. “But the window’s really short. Once we start losing the cold nights, it’s pretty much over.”

    Currently, Lake of Isles produces about 1,200 gallons of sap per day, he said.

    “Here we’re getting about 600 gallons a day,” Whipple added, looking out at the field of trees crisscrossed with blue lines ― tubing that draws the sap back toward the shack via a vacuum pump.

    The trees here have been tapped for a long time, he said, but still produce thousands of gallons each year.

    That sap all comes back to one place.

    Behind the shack, there are two 12,000-gallon tanks that collect sap from the trees. At about noon, they were about half full with sap. If left for too long, that sap will go bad, Martins said.

    From there, the sap goes inside the shack, where it is run through a filter that catches any bark or moss that might have gotten into it.

    “’Cause we want clean sap,” Whipple said.

    It then goes into a box that controls how much sap enters the boiler. This particular machine includes a sap preheater, which warms up the cold sap before it is introduced to the already boiling sap. The pre-heater reduces the amount of steam the whole process produces, and ensures the evaporator can keep a constant boil, Whipple said.

    The more it cooks, the more that steam starts to smell like maple syrup, Whipple said.

    This new evaporator, which in 2016, through funds the farm got from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, replaced the original one and can convert 150 gallons of sap per hour, Whipple said.

    On the side of the evaporator, there’s a spigot. When the sap in the boiler reaches a temperature of 219.8 degrees, it’s ready to come out, he said.

    “”That’s why I wear these muck boots,“ Whipple said. ”’Cause if you’ve got sneakers on, it’ll burn right through ‘em.“

    Whipple and Martins were both wearing boots.

    “Mike! More wood!” Whipple called.

    Whipple and Martins had taken their posts in chairs on either side of the machine. Every 15 minutes, one would get up and feed the fire. Martins dragged a pallet jack to a wood pile that’s beside the two buildings, loaded it with firewood and brought it back.

    Together, the two hoisted the pieces of wood into the burning flame beneath the boiler.

    “Mikey has been working with me since day one,” Whipple said. “He’s like my right-hand man.”

    The 38-year-old Martins said he’s been helping Whipple produce syrup on-and-off since he was 16 and has been doing it for the last six or seven years full-time during syrup season. On Sunday,Martins was at the shack at 7 a.m., and Whipple at 5:30.

    “We had to put everything together. We spent most of the morning,” Martins said.

    The final product

    When the sap comes out, it will fill blue canisters that the two will carry to the adjacent building, which was already full of boxes of syrup bottled from last season.

    In that building, the final product will be filtered again, then bottled, Whipple said.

    Currently, the final product is sold at Foxwoods’ Outpost, Pequot Museum and Mystic Market.

    Foxwoods also purchases gallons of the syrup and for its restaurants, according to Morgan Yandow, business manager for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Department of Agriculture. The casino distributes it to its restaurants.

    “It’s a team here,” Yandow said. “We work well together from the business side to the farm side.”

    Yandow said the farm’s goal is to expand and get into local stores ― namely Big Y in Groton and Village Market in nearby Ledyard Center. Whipple enthusiastically agreed.

    This year’s syrup features new packaging that features wetus, or wigwams, on it. It was designed in part by Yandow.

    “We’re a sovereign nation. That’s important to us,” Whipple said.

    A few hours into boiling, the shack was starting to smell like maple syrup. Whipple estimated they would produce 10 gallons Sunday, and 300 for the season.

    d.drainville@theday.com

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