Tapping the tree of knowledge

Posted 3/16/21

LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — It all boils down to a search for maple syrup.

At Sullivan West High School, there’s a new game in town in the form of an innovative agriculture club, a …

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Tapping the tree of knowledge


LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — It all boils down to a search for maple syrup.

At Sullivan West High School, there’s a new game in town in the form of an innovative agriculture club, a one-credit elective course taught by Padraic “Paddy” McCarthy, now in his second year as a science/agriculture instructor at the Home of the Bulldogs.

The elective is part of the natural resources course that consists of plant and animal identification, data collection and analysis, land use, forestry management, pollution, water quality, invasive species, wilderness survival techniques and leadership skills.

The ag club started out with a small group of outdoor-minded students learning how to tap maple trees along the campus’s cross-country course. After the sugar-laden sap flows into buckets, the students discover how it is converted into maple syrup after it is given to a couple of local maple sugar producers who are working closely with the school project.

It is based in part on the desire to come up with an out-of-the-box way to fundraise: McCarthy said that once the folks at the Diehl Homestead Farm of Callicoon, NY and Anderson’s Maple Syrup in Long Eddy, NY turn the student-gathered sap into a marketable product, the school will pick up a small commission on sales.

At present, there are 20 students signed up for the Sullivan West Ag Club: one seventh-grader, a baker’s dozen freshmen, five sophomores and one junior.

On Friday afternoon, March 5, a group of four students hiked into the woods to tap a few maple trees in search of sap.

The kids had a great time under the leadership of their teacher, who once spent a few summers working for the National Park Service along the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River as a seasonal park ranger.

Before the leisurely trek, five members of the ag club shared a few thoughts about the new endeavor.

Colin Phelps, a 15-year-old sophomore, said, “I heard that a few of my friends were doing it, and I thought it would be a fun experience to tap trees and learn about the ecosystem.” When asked how he planned to put these skills to use, he replied, “I’m looking to tap trees on my property,” adding that he comes from a fourth-generation farming family at the Hillriegel Farm above Callicoon.

The original farm, founded in the late 1800s, is now a retired dairy farm of 180-some acres with another 150 acres leased for hay production and a couple of beef cows. “We make 4,000 bales a year and expect more next year,” said Phelps. After graduation from high school, he plans to study auto technology and ag tech with the goal of expanding his family farm.

Willian Chellis, a 15-year-old sophomore, said, “It’s a good experience, learning how to tap the trees... It’s just good to go out there and have fun with everybody,” he said. “All my cousins are farmers, my grandfather has harness horses and my cousin, Ed Moran, has a farm in Jeffersonville, NY.”

Colin Kavleski, a 15-year-old sophomore whose family owns Atlantian Farm, a hydro-farming greenhouse in Youngsville, NY, said, “I love anything that’s related to the outdoors, and this should give me more experience. So far, we’ve done some tapping and are getting a lot of maple syrup.” Looking ahead past high school, Kavleski said, “I hope to do more stuff with farming and wildlife.”

Elaine Herbert, a 15-year-old sophomore, said, “It’s pretty cool to learn how to tap maple trees... That’s not something everyone knows how to do.” After earning her high school diploma, Herbert hopes to study to become a veterinary technician.

Kayla Wilson, a 14-year-old freshman, said, “I like animals, farming and doing stuff outside,” continuing with thoughts of passing on this maple syrup gathering experience to others. “I think it would be fun to teach other people how to do it themselves.”

Plans for the future include becoming a heavy-equipment operator like her late grandfather. “I’ll do it for him,” said Wilson proudly of the late Patrick Peake of Long Eddy.

McCarthy graduated from Narrowsburg Central School in 1999 as part of the final senior class before the three-way merger created the Sullivan West Central School District. He went on to study at SUNY Cobleskill and Cornell to earn his certification as an agriculture and biology teacher.

“I spent three years teaching at a very small school in South Dakota in the middle of nowhere, a school that had... a graduating class of six,” recalled McCarthy.

After a short teaching stint upstate, he taught science in Port Jervis, NY for a decade and was then hired to instruct biology and living environment at Sullivan West two years ago.

The natural resources class is a brand-new offering at the high school, and members of the ag club join from this select group.

According to McCarthy, one of the goals of the school’s ag program is to become a recognized chapter of the National Future Farmers of America (FFA) Organization.

The original Future Farmers of America was founded in 1928. In 1988, the name was changed to include “National” in the title to reflect the growing diversity in agriculture.

“We are an agricultural community and have been here forever,” said McCarthy, adding of the return to his roots in a rural agricultural setting, “I always dreamed about working here.”

maple syrup, Sullivan West, Ag Club


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