The next time you pour syrup (maple, naturally) on your pancakes, don’t think Vermont. Think New Jersey. Sweet Sourland Farms on Hopewell-Lambertville Road has been producing maple syrup for the last two decades.
Owners Charles “Chuck” and Constance “Bru” Katzenbach have found a dedicated following for their product. “People get addicted to coming here,” says Chuck, “we know them really well; they usually call beforehand rather than just showing up, and we appreciate that.”
The Katzenbachs have worked to reach a sustainable balance between what their ground can support and the demand for what they have to sell: milled white pine lumber from a stand planted 50 some years ago by Chuck’s father, goats introduced four years ago, honey, and maple syrup.
That balance is achieved by practices that have earned the farm a “River Friendly” designation from North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development, a non-profit formed to protect resources within the Raritan River Basin, and by adopting solar technology.
“Essence of tree filled with all kinds of goodness” is how Chuck describes the maple syrup made by Sweet Sourland Farms. It is an enormous improvement over his first boyhood attempts in the kitchen of the 1740 Hopewell Township home his family moved to from Trenton in 1955, when he was seven. “It was fun to do, but it took forever, and as kids we could never wait, we’d eat it before it was finished.”
Born in Trenton in 1948, Chuck went to Princeton Day School but always preferred the outdoors and animals — once he brought home a sheep from the county fair. His father, Charles Buckman Katzenbach (a cousin of the recently deceased U.S. attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach), was a surgeon at both Saint Francis Medical Center in Trenton and the Hunterdon Medical Center. His mother was a nurse. Hopewell was halfway between his father’s two workplaces and offered a country lifestyle for Chuck and his older brother.
Since then, the original property has been divided, and the 18th century house in which Chuck grew up is now next door to the farm. Chuck and Bru’s son Matthew, daughter-in-law Sarah, and grandsons, five-year old Eric and two-year old Evan live there.
Matthew Katzenbach works as a public defender in Somerset County. Sarah is a horticultural graduate of the agricultural school at Delaware Valley College and works at Solebury Orchards in Bucks County. The fluttering Buddhist prayer flags arranged on poles and strung between buildings that greet visitors to the farm were Sarah’s idea, and she is urging her parents-in-law to add cut flowers to their list of farm products.
While Chuck was growing up in Hopewell, Bru was growing up in the upper end of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, the third of four daughters of a Merchant Marine captain and a teacher.
If you are curious about her name “Bru,” here’s the story. Constance was born in 1950, the same year that a famous polar bear named Brumas was born in London Zoo. The newspapers were filled with reports and pictures of the little white bear, named for keepers Bruce and Sam. When Constance’s parents brought her home wrapped up in a white bundle, her sisters thought she looked just like a little polar bear. She’s been known as Bru ever since.
The couple met in college when Bru was studying at Sarah Lawrence. Bru dropped out after three years to join Chuck in New Jersey and didn’t finish her bachelor’s degree until 1980. They lived a freewheeling hippy lifestyle (they now happily describe themselves as aged hippies) and married in 1971, the year Chuck graduated from Princeton University with a BA degree in art and religion as part of the University Scholar Program.
“All I ever did was paint,” recalls Chuck, who took classes with Esteban Vincente and potter Toshiko Takaezu. Subsequently, he worked as a builder and designer on homes, additions, and furniture in the Mercer and Bucks County area. In 1978 he received a master’s degree in Industrial Arts from Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey).
In the 1980s Chuck worked for the Princeton Energy Group, designing and installing glazing for the Princeton Professional Park on Ewing Street, and subsequently designed and built solar energy greenhouses.
Bru studied nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and worked at the university hospital, Princeton Hospital, and Carrier Clinic for the next 20 years. “I was glad to leave city life and account myself fortunate to be where I am today,” says Bru.
Some years after seeing a demonstration at the Howell Living History Farm, the Katzenbachs purchased a “spile,” the tapping device used to direct sap from the tree into a collecting vessel. After they gave the spile as a birthday gift to a friend who had 150 maples on his property, they began tapping their own 175 Acer sacharum trees. When their friend relocated to New Mexico, the Katzenbachs acquired his stainless steel evaporator machine and adopted the name Sweet Sourland Farms.
Over the years, the Katzenbachs have refined the process by which the sap is collected, using tubing and a vacuum pump to bring it uphill to a tank in the sugarhouse that Chuck built for the purpose. The multi-chambered evaporator converts the sap to syrup, powered by waste wood from the farm’s sawmill.
Katzenbach finds the wood-firing adds to the flavor of the syrup; a melding of soil, weather, and trees. “We tap as soon as the pattern of freeze and thaw creates the right conditions for the sap to rise; this year we tapped early, on January 3,” Chuck explains, adding that using the vacuum pump is “like getting milk from a cow, only the ‘animal’ is big and green instead of big and fuzzy.”
It takes 40 gallons of the clear sap, which isn’t at all sweet having only 2 percent sugar content, to produce 1 gallon of syrup. The evaporator (their second) is a $5,000 investment, and the farm produces a modest 40 to 45 gallons of syrup.
More might be possible in the future if they adopt a reverse osmosis system that would make it feasible to tap the red maples on their land, which have a sap that is of a lower (only 1 percent) sugar content. Requiring between 60 and 70 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup, it’s an investment that the Katzenbachs are considering carefully. “Twenty years ago, we couldn’t sell our maple syrup, now we have to ration it out,” says Chuck.
The maples on the 27-acre farm are indigenous to the area. “Some are hundreds of years old, some are 40 to 50 years old,” says Chuck, who is concerned about the future of the native Eastern Hardwood Forest and the impact of a large deer population.
“In the woodland here there are no baby trees, and if something isn’t done there will be no forest in New Jersey at all,” he says. “When I was a child in these woods there were almost no deer. Now deer are managed for the sale of hunting licenses and because of them the forest is not reseeding.”
Tapping doesn’t harm the trees, “if not over-done,” says Chuck, bringing up the issue of balance again. A by-product of the process is distilled water, which is used to thoroughly clean the stainless steel machine and all of the tubing at the end of the season. The system normally runs for two months or so before it is flushed clean, ready for next year.
The Katzenbachs added goats to their operation four years ago and now have 19. Homer is the buck; Janet is one of his does. “Right now, we are building the herd, our target number of between 20 and 25,” says Chuck. “Goats are fun, cheerful characters.” Easier to keep than dairy animals and fun to have around, they also eat the wild rose, an invasive species that deer won’t touch and which has become pernicious in our native New Jersey forest.
Starting out with South African “Boers,” the Katzenbachs discovered that the breed isn’t ideal in the New Jersey climate. To inform themselves about the best methods and practices of goat rearing for the table, they took classes at Cornell University’s agricultural college, learning, for example, to examine the lower eyelids of their goats to find out which might need worming.
Here also a fine balance is needed. “If you over-treat,” says Chuck, “the parasite becomes resistant in the same way that humans have become resistant to certain antibiotics. No one farming sheep or goats can be totally organic in this climate, what you must do is as little intervention as possible.”
One way to improve the herd is to crossbreed, and the Katzenbachs have found that Boers crossed with “Kikos” from New Zealand produces a hardy goat suited to New Jersey.
“It has taken time for us to become skilled at this,” says Chuck. “Everything we do we do slowly, and we are learning all the time, building up the herd and improving the ground at the same time.” The goats are pastured for most of the year and are fed hay in winter. The males are sold for meat, mostly to the Halal market.
Electric fences keep their escape-artist animals where they are supposed to be, as well as deterring predators like foxes, coyotes, and bears. Once or twice a fox has become trapped inside a section of electric fence, but so far the goats have been safe.
The roof of the goat shed, which Chuck built himself with lumber harvested on the farm, boasts an Apricus solar thermal system that supplies one-third of the Katzenbachs’ heating needs and all of their hot water. The system paid for itself in three years. Together with solar panels on the roof of the main barn, the Katzenbachs have reduced their electricity costs from an average of around $150 per month to around $5 per month.
According to Apricus, the installation of just one of its solar thermal collectors can reduce carbon dioxide levels as much as the planting of more than 500 trees. For the Katzenbachs, the system helps satisfy their goal of reducing the farm’s carbon footprint.
“We are part of a counter culture that tries to live in an ecologically sensitive way” says Bru, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 1980s. “We are very fortunate that there are young people committed to doing something for the environment.”
One such person is filmmaker Jared Flesher, who lodged with the Katzenbachs for a time while working on his award-winning documentary, “The Farmer and the Horse,” about a new generation of New Jersey farmers, many of them in the Sourland Mountains, who are retaining old practices and the hard work that they demand.
The Katzenbachs are featured in Flesher’s latest film, “Sourlands: Stories from the Fight for Sustainability” (U.S. 1, July 3). For more information, visit www.sourlands.com.
The Katzenbachs’ investment in the solar panels on one side of the main barn was made possible by a state rebate program that covered about two-thirds of the $100,000 cost. New Jersey and California lead the way in solar panel installations, and even though Governor Chris Christie withdrew New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a 10-state consortium that seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Bru remains optimistic that New Jerseyans will continue to adopt solar even without government subsidies.
“We’ve made a commitment to sustainable and organic agriculture and the use of solar thermal and photovoltaic renewable energy sources,” says Chuck.
Add recycling to that list. The Katzenbachs built their own house in 1984 from an 1833 building that once stood in Berks County, PA, and which was auctioned by the Army Corps of Engineers when the site was flooded to create the Blue Marsh Lake reservoir.
The now super-insulated structure is highly efficient in terms of heating. “It’s like an airtight chamber,” says Chuck. An Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) system brings fresh air in from the outside through a heat exchanger that recovers any lost heat. Even so, the farm isn’t 100 percent solar powered. A little propane is used from time to time for baseboard heat.
The main barn went up in 1994. “Having worked as a professional builder, I’m still a bit of a build-a-holic,” laughs Chuck, who recycled an old barn on the Mount Airy-Harbourton Road in neighboring West Amwell Township.
Its owner was only too glad to have Chuck dismantle and remove the structure, which he recognized was in imminent danger of collapse. The old barn boasted a double knee brace that Chuck says is rare to find in a farm building. The heavy wood is exposed in the new barn, where it takes pride of place.
The other buildings built by Chuck are the sugarhouse, now 20 years old and due for a new roof; a former chicken shed that is in reality a little log cabin sporting what appears to be a sod roof but on closer inspection is revealed to be made of varieties of sedum; and a pottery constructed using a variety mismatched bricks and windows that were once part of old storm doors. The pottery studio and kiln are used by the Katzenbachs’ friend, noted Bucks County potter Deborah Tinsman.
In spite of the demands of the farm, which operates with occasional helpers but no full-time employees, Chuck has time for several other passions: producing his own paintings and sculptures and indulging his love of construction.
His artwork can be seen at the Artist’s Gallery in Lambertville. He uses oil paint between layers of glass to produce 3D sculptures that play with color and light, and he makes his own frames, working in his upstairs studio in the main barn where works-in-progress testify to multifaceted talent and interest, including a wooden kayak.
Much of his art is of a semi-devotional nature. He’s had solo exhibitions at Theatre Intime and the 185 Gallery of Princeton University, Hopewell Freight Shed, and group shows at Cheltenham and Gallery 12. His work was featured in New Art International, 2004. For more of his work, visit www.lambertvillearts.com/artist.php?lname=Katzenbach.
Although the name “Sweet Sourland Farms” is relatively recent, the Katzenbach property has been a working farm since 1956. “My dad loved to plant trees, we had Christmas trees back then and the 6,000 tiny saplings he put here in 1958-’59 are the trees that now need harvesting,” says Chuck. Like his father, Chuck is thinking ahead to the future of the farm and to his two young grandsons. He’s planted 100 high yield maples specially bred at Cornell that will be ready for tapping in about 10 to 15 years. “Unlike the maples already on the property, these young trees are bred to have 8 percent sugar, four times the amount of the native species in the woods here. We’ve planted 100 of these root-modified trees.”
For more on Cornell’s Sugar Maple Tree Improvement Program, visit:maple.dnr.cornell.edu/Ext/tree_impr/tree%20improvement.htm.
The process the Katzenbachs are engaged in, harvesting trees planted for the purpose, scraping out the undergrowth to expose the soil while leaving in the stumps, seeding the ground with grasses for the goats, is one that maintains and improves the existing soil. They have sought out government bodies that help guide this sort of farming. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the USDA, offers expert advice and funding that has helped the Katzenbachs hone their skills and handle their land more efficiently. Besides planting for the future, Chuck has built a pond that conserves water from run-off, provides irrigation, and is a natural habitat for frogs and other amphibians.
The lumber produced by the Katzenbachs is in demand by organic farmers, who use it for tomato stakes and produce boxes, and by local builders, especially those working on old homes and in search of large 14-inch by 14-inch lumber needed for joists.
Says Chuck: “At first I used the lumber for my own projects, to build on to the house, the barn, and other buildings. Now, we sell to builders, many of whom are renovating old houses and looking for pine in big pieces that are rare to come by. We serve people working in the post and beam manner. We don’t sell firewood. The Eastern Hardwood Forest renews itself slowly, the equivalent of about one-third of a cord per acre per year, so if you start cutting it for firewood, you’re not improving your forest.”
What’s next? With lumber comes sawdust and wood shavings that can be used as compost and mulch. The Katzenbachs are considering using the sawdust for mushroom cultivation and have sought the advice of mycologist Alan Kaufman, a local expert on mushroom cultivation.
In the spirit of the recent Independence Day festivities, it bears mentioning that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin took enormous patriotic pride in using home grown produce instead of foreign imports. Franklin advocated planting maple trees to counteract American dependency on British sugar. He might well be regarded as the first “locavore” for his delight in cranberries, corn, and the maple syrup colonists learned about from Native Americans.
Sweet Sourland Farms, 90 Lambertville Hopewell Road, Hopewell 08525; 609-466-9241; fax, 609-466-9241. Charles (Chuck) & Constance (Bru) Katzenbach, owners. www.localharvest.org/sweet-sourland-farms-M22027.
A pint of their pure NJ maple syrup is $12; a half pint is $7; lumber (eastern white pine) is grown & milled on site; honey from local bee colonies gathered by Tassot Apiaries is $7 perpound; meat from their grass fed goat herd is sold out for this year.