Sustainably Made: Lessons from the Sugar Bush

By Diana DeLuca ’23, May 5, 2023

Students in the Non-Timber Forest Products class host an open house.

In most classes at Ithaca College, final projects take the form of papers and presentations. But in the Farming the Forest: Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) class, taught by environmental studies professor Jason Hamilton, students make maple syrup, beeswax candles, and wood carvings to sell through a business, South Hill Forest Products. The course allows students to get hands-on, real-world skills by creating the products and running the business, which began in 2010. The proceeds from sales in the online store help to cover the upcoming year’s costs.

Goods from South Hill Forest Products were available at an open house held on Earth Day at a sugar bush—a stand of maple trees used to make maple syrup—that borders the IC Natural Lands. Nearly 300 people attended the Earth Day celebration, eating pancakes served with the student-made maple syrup and enjoying yard games, live music, and face painting.

The event was a fitting way to end the semester and showcase all the work the students put into the course throughout the year. “It was nice to celebrate all of the hard work of the students who participated in the sugar bush and a great way to share with the rest of school and Ithaca community,” said Julie Wilson ’23.

People at a sugar bush

The open house gave members of the Ithaca community the opportunity to see the sugar bush that borders the college's Natural Lands. (Photo by Casey Ingraham '24)

It truly was an acknowledgement of a semester-long effort. At the start of the spring semester, students tapped the maple trees in the sugar bush. Once enough sap was collected, the students took shifts boiling the sap over a fire, which took two to four days. Students were at the sugar bush during all hours of the day and night, fanning the fire, chopping wood, checking the sap levels, and bottling and labeling the syrup once it was produced. Students were also in charge of tracking orders from their online store as well as packaging and shipping them.

In addition to maple syrup production, students learned wood carving, decorative wood burning, lathing, beeswax processing, and how to make salves and bark baskets. They also pursued their own crafting ideas, making jewelry, cutting boards, coasters, and ornaments that were also sold at the open house.

Communication management and design major Carly Vallet ’23 decided to take the NTFP course because it allowed her to take on a leadership role and get her out of her comfort zone. “I was co-leading the marketing and sales team, which allowed me to step up and have to delegate tasks to a decently large group of people,” Vallet said. “I’m not the most outgoing person, so taking charge isn’t really something I do too often. But I’m really glad I got some experience with it.”

Students in the class also expressed the importance of learning more about sustainable practices. “My biggest takeaway was definitely the wide array of sustainable resources that can be cultivated from the forest without chopping it all down,” said Cedar Winslow ’23.