Rodney Hall considers dairy to be the hub of his family’s farm in East Dixfield. The spokes are hay, his brother Randy’s herd of beef cattle, firewood processing and Rodney’s maple syrup operation.
“We were diversified before diversified farms were the ‘in’ thing,” Rodney says. “We knew that milking 50 cows, we weren’t going to be able to support three families. We either had to diversify or grow bigger, and the land base just wasn’t available to grow bigger.”
When asked how many years his family has been milking cows: “Well, my family had deeds on this land back to 1816, and I assume they had a cow then.” He figures that’s more than 144,000 milkings that have taken place on the Halls’ farm – 198 years, 365 days a year, twice a day.
“It’s just kind of neat to think about that,” he says. “That’s a lot of milkings.”
Eight generations later, Rodney, Randy and their father Dick ship milk to Organic Valley, having transitioned to organic production in 2001. Rodney and Randy currently milk 40 Holsteins. They built a new barn last year and are growing into it, he says. The barn was made to hold 60 cows, but he would like to keep the number closer to 50.
In late winter/early spring, Rodney’s time is often split between the dairy and maple syrup.
“It’s chores in the morning, then I take the truck out to get sap, come back, do more chores, milk, finish chores, then boil sap,” he says. “We start at 5 in the morning and try to be done by 11 at night.”
“It’s filler for us,” he says of sap season. Other times of the year would be filled with field work, cutting firewood, general maintenance and other tasks.
He has two tanks that hold sap – one holds 4,000 gallons; the other holds 1,000 gallons. His evaporator can turn out 32-35 gallons of syrup an hour, and on an average day in the peak of syrup season, he spends 4-5 hours boiling. Rodney doesn’t like the sap to sit for long, saying that you get “the best quality syrup” if you boil in the evening what was collected that day. “It’s like condensed milk,” he says of the process of boiling the water out of the sap to produce syrup.
He says 1,000 gallons of maple syrup is his goal for every season, and most years he produces 800-1,200 gallons. He spends most of the month of February putting taps on the trees and running pipe. He tapped 5,000-5,500 trees this year. While many people have worried that this is a poor maple syrup season because of the cold weather, Rodney says the season hasn’t even started. “Sapping isn’t late,” he says, adding that the best time to collect and boil sap, in his opinion, is the last week of March and first week of April in the region around Farmington. Recent mild winters have pushed that ahead slightly.
“It gets to March, and people think it’s spring,” he says.
While Maine Maple Sunday falls a little early for his sapping schedule, it’s just right for the folks who come out for the event. “You can’t open up camp yet or mow the lawn, and everyone’s already been skiing and snowmobiling all winter. They are looking for something different to do. It’s amazing. People will have their maps and make a day of touring different sugarhouses,” says Rodney, adding that his farm was one of 13 involved in Maine Maple Sunday when he started 29 years ago. The Maine Maple Producers Association lists 88 maple syrup operations that will be open to visitors this year on its map.
Rodney expects about 700 people to come through the line at the pancake breakfast his family will put on at Hall Farms this Sunday, March 23. The Halls own an old schoolhouse right next door to the farm, which is where they host the breakfast, serving pancakes with maple syrup (they usually go through 12 gallons that day), sausage, coffee and milk. Organic Valley donates all the butter for the event. Rodney also serves Gifford’s vanilla ice cream with maple syrup, and they make maple cotton candy. There is a little gift shop area in the schoolhouse, and folks can take home more maple syrup, maple cream, maple sugar or other products.
“People come for the cows, too,” Rodney says. The cow barn is right next door to the schoolhouse and the calves are obviously a big hit.
Rodney is also in charge of the sugarhouse at Fryeburg Fair every year. His family has been involved with the fair for generations. His father runs the horse and oxen pulling, while Randy is in charge of the beef barns. The Halls hire help to work back on the farm, but Rodney commutes back and forth every day so that he is there for milking. “It’s like Maine Maple Sunday for a full week,” he says, adding that close to 100,000 people come through the sugarhouse on the fairgrounds.
I have spent the week working on my own recipes, which means I have been devouring everything maple and chasing it with glass after glass of milk. Just a note, I use a cast iron skillet in most of my cooking, so unless otherwise noted, that’s what I used to make any of the following.
Pancakes have always been a favorite in my family. They are not strictly breakfast food, but are often a good, quick supper too. For many years, my sister requested pancakes for her birthday dinner. But more recently, I have been leaning towards crepes – either way, you drown them in maple syrup. This time of year, I am also busting into the berries that my grandmother picked and froze during the summer and has been hoarding ever since. We pick our own berries, too, but I’ve already gone through all those. My grandmother lives across the road, so I sneak into her chest freezer in the garage and hope she doesn’t notice her dwindling berry supply.
On Thursday morning, as the snow was coming down outside, I made lemon crepes and layered them with ricotta cheese and strawberries and then poured on the maple syrup. You could alternate the ricotta for yogurt if you would prefer – delicious either way. And I just used lemon juice, but if you had lemons (like I said, it was snowing and it’s a good trek to the nearest grocery store), this would be even better with fresh lemon juice and zest.
2 cups milk
1 cup flour (I used buckwheat)
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons honey
Mix all the ingredients together. It will be a much thinner batter than pancakes. Make sure your pan or skillet is good and hot and buttered. Don’t be discouraged if the first one or two crepes don’t come out just right, as the pan gets hotter, they get better. They are so thin they will almost cook all the way through before you flip them, and need to cook only briefly on the second side. Layer with your berries and ricotta or yogurt and serve with maple syrup.
Another great topping for pancakes is maple syrup cream sauce or maybe creamed maple syrup is a better name. I got this idea after seeing this recipe from The Pioneer Woman for Whiskey Maple Cream Sauce. I make a caramel sauce all the time with sugar, butter and cream to go on baked apples, but had not done it with maple syrup. All I did was combine one cup of cream and ½ cup maple syrup in my cast iron skillet and let it boil down as I stirred continually. I got it thicker than the Pioneer Woman’s sauce. I then drizzled (that’s kind of a heavy drizzle) it over baked pears – one topped with ricotta cheese and one topped with my favorite ginger ice cream from Sandy River Farms in Farmington, which I pass every day on my way to and from work.
The first time I made it, it cooked up beautifully, but the second time, I tried it during the snowstorm and it curdled on me. On my first attempt that day, I thought my skillet was too hot for the milk because I had just finished cooking my crepes in it. On the next attempt, I blamed it on the fact that I used milk instead of cream. So, the third time I tried it with cream with the same results. ARGH! I am blaming it on the weather. So now I had a cup and a half of maple syrup and three cups of curdled milk/cream. What to do? What to do?
I let it keep boiling until it most of the liquid had cooked away and I had wet, mapley little curds. They really were delicious, and I thought they would sweeten cookies really well. Had I any rolled oats, I would have made oatmeal cookies, but I only had steelcut, so using my coffee grinder, I made myself 1 cup of oat flour and added my maple curds along with 1 cup of buckwheat flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 2 eggs and a 1/2 cup of yogurt. They needed something else, so I threw in about 2/3 cup of pecans because that was all that I had of pecans and added an equal amount of slivered almonds. I laid them out on a baking sheet like drop cookies, and they baked into a good cake cookie.They were some of the tastiest cookies ever – great maple taste.
But if you really like maple sweetness, you’ll love this fudge. This recipe is adapted from Thibeault’s Table blog. Mainly, I just cut the sugar in half and used only a couple tablespoons of butter – just enough to melt in the skillet before adding my sugar. I used light brown sugar, and they suggest half and half of white and brown, but I think any would work. I also used pecans. I know everything is supposed to be maple walnut, but walnuts make my mouth itch, and pecans are a favorite of mine, so use whatever works for you.
Several dairy farms also produce maple syrup as a side business. The Harris Farm in Dayton has a two-day pancake breakfast. Members of the Wright family, whose calves are pictured on the above recipe card) will also host a two-day open house at their Battleridge Syrup in Clinton with samples of syrup on ice cream, along with maple cheese cake, maple covered cinnamon buns and maple glazed ham.
You might think I would be sick of maple syrup after testing out all these recipes this week, but you would be wrong. It’s impossible to be sick of maple syrup. I am thinking about what else I could put it in and how many farms I could hit up this weekend for Maine Maple Sunday. Follow DrinkMaineMilk.org on Facebook and Pinterest or Instagram, as I often post new recipes whenever the urge to create. hits me.