SALEM -- Steve Rascher was 4 when he first caught the sugaring bug.
"I picked it up out of necessity," recalled the owner and operator of Rascher's Sugarhouse in the hamlet of Shushan.
"That was during the second world war. It was springtime, and I passed by a sugarhouse by the side of the road. It had all this fragrant steam that was coming out, and I said, ‘I've got to do this.' I talked to Dad about it, and we went to Salem and got some buckets and put them out around the yard. We were set for the year."
The Rascher family emigrated from Sweden in 1941 when Steve, or "Staffan" as he was called at the time, was a young boy. He has been making maple syrup at the family farm ever since, earning statewide and international recognition. On Friday, he will speak to hundreds of organic growers at the annual conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
This year's conference, called "Diggin' Diversity," is expected to draw 1,000 people to the Saratoga Springs City Center over the weekend. It is the organization's 29th annual winter conference.
The three-day event features more than 80 workshops that will focus on organic farming issues, from gardening and livestock to web marketing strategies.
Rascher, with a lifetime of experience to draw from, will lead a presentation on certified organic maple syrup-making.
"Dad bought the property because he thought we could live off it, and I took over the farm from Dad when I was in my 20s," said Rascher, whose father, Sigurd, was a renowned 20th century
"Maple syrup, when done properly, has tons of minerals in it," he said. "Think about it: What we harvest this spring will be last year's sunshine. The trees stood there all summer long. What I have is liquid sunshine."
During the winter, starch stored in the trees' tissue is converted to sugar and dissolves in the sap.
Rascher collects the sap from the tree, brings it into his 50-by-32-foot sugarhouse and processes it over a wood fire, which concentrates the sap into syrup. It takes 30 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
"Every single step in the process is certified organic," said Rascher, who produces his syrup exclusively by the evaporation of maple sap.
He does not use a reverse-osmosis process or vacuum pumps, Rascher said, and he burns wood - not oil - in his production process.
"I believe being organic has a lot to do with the state of mind. I care for the environment," Rascher said.
A maple tree will produce about 10 gallons of sap per tap, Rascher said, which will yield about one quart of syrup. Modern machinery can return a better yield, but Rascher bristles at the thought of using it.
"We treat our trees with great reverence," he said.
When he isn't making syrup, Rascher enjoys teaching people about it - describing the differences between black maples and sugar maples, rattling off the mathematical equations of maple-making that he calls "Jones Rule of 86."
Rascher lectures up and down the East Coast and provides tours of his maple farm on Perry Hill Road in Shushan, where he works and sells his syrup.
"I do a lot of speaking. That's why I asked to do this at the conference this year," he said.
His lecture will take place on Friday. Afterward, he plans to host a caravan of conference attendees at his Shushan business, where he cultivates 146 acres of maple trees.
The organic market for producers and consumers has been growing for more than a decade.
The number of certified organic growers more than quadrupled between 1994 and 2007, and certified organic land in the U.S. reached more than 4.8 million acres in 2008, according to The Organic Trade Association.
Domestic sales of organic food and beverages have also grown, from $1 billion in 1990 to nearly $25 billion in 2009.
To Rascher, the "certified organic" title is serious business.
"When you're up there, it's quiet; it's peaceful. There's just a little crackling from the springs," said Rascher, who admits to getting teary-eyed when talking about the sugaring.
"Up there, it feels like you're a million miles away from everything."