Monthly Archives: April 2010

A new play by David Budbill

The cast of "A Song for my Father" at Lost Nation Theater. Photo by Francis Moran Photography

by Bethany M. Dunbar, April 29, 2010

When I was in junior high at Craftsbury Academy, a poet came to our school to get us started writing poetry and thinking about poetry in a different way.  The poet was David Budbill of Wolcott, and his poems were gritty tributes to real people — our neighbors in fact.

These poems were so real and raw that they freaked people out.  There was a poem about a pissing contest between two boys trying to hit the highest branch on the tree.  There was a poem about the two mentally disabled guys who walked on the side of the road together every day.

They were poems about survival and chain saws and neon beer lights in the window of the store.

Parents objected.

Pretty soon we had a whole downright town fight about it.  I’m proud to say that my dad, Addison Merrick, himself a poet who taught English at Johnson State College, stood up for David, the program and the poems.

The whole thing certainly made an impression on me, and I have been a friend and fan of David’s ever since.  So I was pretty excited to hear that he had a new play out.  It’s at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, and it’s called, “A Song for my Father.”

It’s real and raw.  It’s about struggles and guilt and hope and disappointment and resentment.

It’s wicked powerful, and I highly recommend that you go see it.  I am posting my review here along with an interview I did with David.

If you have seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought — post me a comment here if you are in the mood.

New on the Chronicle’s web site are bonus photos of events we have covered that we can’t fit in the paper.  We’re going to start running these each week.  I hope you’ll take a look.  Thanks.

“A Song for my Father” is brilliant, powerful and uncomfortable

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, April 28, 2010

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Don’t go to see “A Song for my Father” if you are looking for an evening of light or mindless entertainment.

You will leave the theater emotionally drained and yet weirdly hopeful and wanting to talk to your father, or your son, or anyone else in your life remotely resembling a family member.

David Budbill’s new play is brilliant and powerful and explores areas within difficult relationships that people often don’t want to explore.

The play is a tribute in a way, but it’s not a comfortable thing to watch.  It’s about a father and son who try to connect but have trouble despite their best intentions and the fact that they love each other deeply.

Randy Wolf, the son, has a refrain he seems to keep using.  He was trapped by circumstance.

His father is too.  Aren’t we all?

And yet the circumstances that trap Randy are less severe than those his father, Frank, endured.

Frank is a streetcar driver in Cleveland, Ohio, who gave his son a better life than he had for himself.  He made sure his son got a high school and college education.  A tea-totaller, Frank spared his son from the rampages of an alcoholic father that he suffered as a child.  Young Frank quit school in seventh grade to support his mother and three sisters.

And while Frank is proud of his son, he doesn’t understand him and resents him.

“All that pride and self-esteem floated on a sea of rage,” says Randy.

The most intense scene in the play comes when Randy challenges his father to do some role-playing.  He suggests that Frank play the part of his own father, and Randy will play the role of Frank as a child.  Frank’s father is coming home from a three-day bender.  His mother tells young Frank not to say anything, but even so, his father sees the look in his wife’s eyes and loses it, taking out his own unhappiness with himself on his wife and son, beating his wife.  Young Frank attacks his father, and the two end up on the ground, wrestling.  Frank (playing his father) is screaming and crying.

Randy tries to call it off, but it’s too late.

“I need to hurt somebody.  Why do I always have to be the good guy?”

Frank does hurt somebody, but not by attacking him physically.  He insults his son’s decisions in his life.  He doesn’t like his clothes, wonders what kind of a trade is poetry and what kind of a place to live is Vermont?

Precious, smug, clean, and self-righteous, he says.

“You know philosophy and poetry, but you don’t know a sheet metal screw from a wood screw,” he says.

“I keep telling you, I’m no suit,” is Randy’s reply.

“A Song for my Father” tackles these serious questions not only with dramatic intensity but with humor as well.

Frank is a flirt, and his attempts to get his nurse into bed with him at the end of his life are classic.

“Flirting and squirting are not the same thing,” he tells his son.

When Randy’s mother dies, Frank remarries, a woman named Ivy.  Ivy is played by Ruth Wallman, the same actress who played his mother.

When Randy first meets her, he is astonished and remarks that she looks just like his mother.

Photographs of Cleveland in the 1940s are projected in the background.  Frank reveres the industries there and challenges Randy’s idea of the meaning of the word pollution.

The cast of this show is spot-on.

Robert Nuner as Frank is perfectly prickly, proud and classy, even when he is suffering dementia.  He makes a cheap cigar and a lawn chair look better than a golden throne and caviar.

John Alexander plays Randy and doesn’t even seem to be playing a part.  He seems to be telling a story from his own point of view, including his respect of his father, his frustration, his desire to understand and appreciate his father, and his wish that his father would understand him.

Tara Lee Downs is just right as Nurse Betty, putting up with Frank and even becoming his friend.  You have the idea Nurse Betty might have been rooting for Frank a little when he peed on the bushes at the nursing home.

Ruth Wallman is great as Ruth, Randy’s dead mother, and as Ivy, the new wife.  Her performance of the scene when we are introduced to Ivy as she telephones a friend describing how the Lord took the steering wheel to guide her through the fog one evening is just fantastic.

Congratulations to David Budbill and Lost Nation Theater.  This show runs through May 9.

Budbill discusses “A Song for my Father.”

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, April 28, 2010

WOLCOTT, Vt. — The father character in David Budbill’s new play, “A Song for my Father,” is based on the author’s own father, who died more than ten years ago.

The play explores the tension between a working class father who drove a streetcar in Cleveland, Ohio, and a college-educated poet son who lives in Vermont.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Budbill said he did not actually grow up in Cleveland.  He left when he was ten years old.  And his father did not actually hate Vermont, but many aspects of their relationship are reflections of his own.

Asked if he could have written this play while his father was still alive, he said no.

“I wouldn’t know enough.  I wouldn’t feel enough.”

He said it’s not that he would not feel free to express all that, but he needed more time to understand it.

Mr. Budbill said so far, feedback from people who have seen the play has been all good, without exception.  He is surprised at how many people who see it tell him about their own relationships with their fathers or similar experiences.

Asked how he managed to write something so universal, he said, “I had no idea it was as universal as it is.  I was just telling my story.”

He said it’s a good example of the fact that, as a writer, in order to be universal you have to be specific.

Mr. Budbill said after four nights, the play is already changing.

“Plays are like kids.  They grow up,” he said.  “As they get older, they get more mature, and they understand themselves better.”

The play will be on the Lost Nation Theater stage through May 9.

Mr. Budbill said he is famous for driving actors crazy by tinkering with the play and rewriting it after they have already memorized their lines.  This time he promised not to do that, but he’s got ideas for changes that might be made at some point.  He’s working on four monologues by Randy, the son.

Andrew Doe is the director, and Mr. Budbill said he and Mr. Doe knew who they wanted to play each of the five main characters, and they were lucky enough to get these exact actors and actresses to take it on.  One is from Burlington and one is from Grand Isle, so the time commitment on their part is huge.

“I’m delighted with the production,” he said, and he considers the intimacy of the setting at Lost Nation Theater exactly right for this show.

Asked if he would be the same kind of poet if he had stayed in Cleveland, he said he has wondered about that for a long time.

“I think I would have been a poet similar to the kind I am now, but I don’t know,” he said.  One thing would be the same.  “I certainly think I would have been a poet of the working class if I lived in Cleveland.”

Mr. Budbill said his own father wanted to live in the country and dreamed of having a chicken farm.  He used to visit his son in Wolcott fairly often and would sit on the front porch, look out at the view, and say, “You’ve got it, Bud.  You’ve really got it.”

That scene shows up in one of Mr. Budbill’s poems.

“In a very serious way, my life is a fulfillment of his dream,” he said.

Love your broccoli

by Bethany M. Dunbar, April 24, 2010

How do we get children to eat better food?  Have them grow it.  Our First Lady Michelle Obama is making a great example with her garden at the White House.  Here in Vermont there is a program that is spreading rapidly throughout Vermont called Farm to School.  It’s getting children involved and guess what?  They love their vegetables when they grow them themselves.

If only George H. W. Bush had gone to school in Vermont.  He might have been a broccoli lover after all.  Then he could have set a better example.

Posted here is my story about this program which, in my opinion, every single school in the country should join — or start their own.  It not only means better nutrition for children, it connects local farmers with the schools.  In this case, the program is connecting with senior meal sites as well.

My only complaint?  They haven’t published a cookbook.  But you can get many of the recipes from their annual calendars.

Great work, kids.  Oh, and great work by the adults running this program too!

Green Mountain Farm to School program is growing — in more ways than one

Eli Petit enjoys a quiet moment of reflection in the sunflower house in the Coventry Village School Garden of Life. Photo courtesy of Green Mountain Farm to School.

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, April 7, 2010

NEWPORT — Five more schools are joining the Green Mountain Farm to School program this growing season.  So the chances are good children in those schools will soon be clamoring for more rutabagas.

Katherine Sims, the executive director of the program, collects comments from children, hot lunch cooks, teachers, parents and anyone else involved in farm-to-school programs.  One of her favorites is from Becky Koennicke, food service director at Glover School, who said:

“Can you grow me more rutabaga?  The rutabaga we had last year was really well received.”

Another cook commented that if any particular food is from the school garden, the kids will eat it.  It’s that simple.

The culture of growing your own food is not foreign to many kids in Northeastern Vermont schools.  If their parents don’t do it, their grandparents probably did.  Ms. Sims is just trying to bring that culture back so that local schools serve food that comes from the neighborhood, children learn about that food and grow some themselves, and the grandparents share recipes and advice for cooking and preserving it.

“We have really, small, strong, close-knit communities,” she said, and the local agricultural heritage means the Northeast Kingdom can lead the way.

“It feels like an issue whose time has really come,” she added — and not just here.  Michelle Obama is planting a garden with local children at the White House, and all over Vermont there is a ten-year strategic Farm to Plate planning process going on to make more connections between local farmers and consumers.

Green Mountain Farm-to-School is working with schools from Hyde Park to Holland and at least 24 farms in Northeastern Vermont.

New schools this year will be elementary schools in Newport Center, Brighton, Morgan, Charleston and Craftsbury.  So far the program has focused on elementary schools, but Ms. Sims said they will soon be working with Lyndon Institute and have been talking with North Country Union High School and the junior high.  At that level, the students in marketing, horticulture, and culinary arts classes could get involved.

Working with high schools is a bigger job, and it’s a chance to get much more local food into school systems.  Farm-to-school coordinator Joanna Dillan said Lyndon Institute uses three bushels of apples a week and 200 pounds of ground beef.

Sometimes these ingredients cost a bit more, but often they don’t because shipping is less expensive.  Local apples turn out to be cheaper than apples shipped from Washington state.

Local ground beef might cost a bit more, but Ms. Sims believes the extra cost is worth it.

“It’s an investment in the health of our kids and our economy,” she said.

The program started in 2006 at the Jay-Westfield School.  It is funded one-third from individual and corporate donations, one-third from grants, and one-third from program fees.  Total revenues were $106,748 in the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2009.

Terry Lumbra of the Holland Elementary School prepares roasted roots for a taste test.

Originally Ms. Sims was the one staff member, but at this point there are six people working for the program.  Besides school gardens, the program arranges farm field trips for students and recently started making connections with four senior meal sites as well.

“What’s neat about working with seniors is they have so much they can share with us,” said Ms. Sims.

She said one senior told her that the corn bread recipe they were taste-testing one day tasted just like her grandfather’s old recipe.  The recipe has maple syrup and yogurt in it, so the corn bread is quite moist.

As the program has grown, more ideas have come out for improvements and expansions.

Farm-to-school has typically been part of the after-school program in schools that have an after-school program.  But Ms. Sims is happy to coordinate with the curriculum.  Students who were studying Native American culture could grow a “three sisters garden.”  That is a garden with winter squash, beans and corn all in one spot — not in rows.  That way, the squash leaves provide shade to keep the weeds out.  The corn stalks provide a place for the bean vines to grow, and the beans help fix nitrogen in the soil which the corn plants need.

At Albany Community School last year, there were not enough students in the after-school program to get the garden planted.  So Ms. Sims said they decided to recruit some helpers from each grade.  Each class identified a vegetable they would like to plant, and they were responsible for that particular row on planting day.

This accident worked out so well that the coordinators will incorporate it into other schools in the future as a way to get everyone involved.

Ms. Sims said the school gardens are planted with crops that will mostly be ready after school starts in the fall, but there is work to be done in the school gardens in the summer too.

If the school already has a summer program, students in that program can help with the school garden.

“This year we’re looking at a week-long garden camp,” she said.

Ms. Sims hopes to get the Agency of Agriculture’s mobile freezing unit up to the area to help with processing some of the vegetables.  She mentioned the possibility of a big “processing party.”

Here are some comments from students, who were answering a question about what they learned:

“I have learned that fruit is good for your body,” said Shane Craig, who is in second grade in Holland Elementary School.

“I learned how to make pretzels,” said Nick Winters, in grade four at Lowell Graded School.

“I learned about the germ, bran, endospem and stalk,” said Kylie Wright, in fourth grade in Coventry Village School.

“I learned, ‘Don’t yuck my yum,’” said Sam Austin, who is in second grade in Troy Elementary School.

Ms. Sims explained that students are asked not to say that a food they don’t like is awful or nasty because someone else might really like it.  Instead, students are asked to just say they don’t care for it.

Lowell Graded School is soon going to do a taste test of a fruit and oatmeal bar recipe to see if it would be a good recipe to add to the school lunch menu.  The recipe was provided by Amy Masi, who is a parent:

¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

8 oz. vanilla or plain yogurt

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tsp. vanilla

2 Tbsp. milk

1 cup all purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. sat

3 cups old fashioned oats

1 cup diced fruit

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, combine sugars, yogurt, eggs, milk and vanilla; mix well.  In a medium bowl combine flour, baking soda, cinnaomn and salt.  Mix well.  Combine wet and dry mixtures.  Stir in oats and fruit.  Spread dough onto bottom of ungreased 13 by 9 inch baking pan.  Bake 28 to 32 minutes or until light golden brown.  Cool completely on wire rack.  Cut into bars.  Store tightly covered.

To find out more about Green Mountain Farm-to-School, look at the program’s web site:  www.greenmountainfarmtoschool.org.

Salad taste tests ready to try. Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Farm to School.

Moose and tortoise

Moose in Barton. Photos by Bethany M Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar, April 16, 2010

On Tuesday afternoon we were working away on stories about a Supreme Court ruling and the school budget vote when we were inexplicably drawn outside.  We just had to go look at Chris Braithwaite’s brand spanking new Mini Cooper.  It’s a beautiful thing, and its magnetism drew the entire editorial staff of the Chronicle out the door.  Didn’t hurt that it was an incredibly beautiful day out there.  In fact, we have a tendency to wander outside at the least provocation at times like these.

Then our neighbor just uphill of us on Water Street excitedly shouted, “Look at the church!”  We did.  We did not see anything unusual about the church down the road.

But it turns out a young wandering moose had just turned the corner and headed up in our direction.  Pretty soon we got a glimpse.  I grabbed a camera and away we went on a little mini moose safari.

Turns out it would not be difficult to get a picture.  All I had to do was have the nerve to stand still as it clomped past me, about two feet from me, and shoot some pictures.  I was seriously tempted to pat the thing, but she (I’m pretty sure it was a young female about a year old or so) looked so nervous I thought I’d better not.

I did get a chance to pat a moose before.  My friend David Lawrence had a moose named Bull before he had the famous Pete.  My work day on the day I did a story about Bull the moose and David was one of my favorite days of work in my whole life.  Hanging out with David is a real treat anyway — he has so many stories.  The day turned out to be a bit longer than we thought because we got a little bit stuck in the snow.

Luckily David had provisions — Budweiser and jelly doughnuts that he used to share with Bull.  I asked him once if Pete likes beer.  At that time he told me no, Pete is too young for that.

Right by the Chronicle office

Okay, back to Barton on Tuesday.  Possibly my experience with Bull made me a little less afraid and I got some incredible shots.  The moose went right around the Chronicle office and right between my 13-year-old Subaru and Chris’s brand new Mini Cooper.  I’m really glad she didn’t step on the Mini.

Of course I could not fit all the pictures in the paper, so I’m going to post the whole batch here because what the heck.

I got a little nervous when the youngster was crossing the main road, Route 16.  But it’s Barton, and luckily there was no traffic.  I waved my arms to warn the two cars going by to slow down.  She wandered into the yard of the McMasters, and the next door neighbors got some nice close-up photos too.  Bill Bouvia said he only moved here seven months or so ago and was certainly thrilled to see a moose in his yard.  He said his friends would never believe it, but I think they will because his companion got lots of pictures.

Right after the moose went by me - Chris is in the background.

The three of us watched while the critter tried to get in Dan McMaster’s house.  Too funny.  I don’t know why it was so interested in the handicapped-access ramp or the garage door, but once it stepped on a piece of metal roofing, the noise scared the youngster and she headed off to cross the river and make some new friends with a group of work horses across the river.

Lucille Letourneau, the other neighbor, ran to tell Dan, who was completely amazed.  He said maybe the moose wanted to check out the apartment he has for rent.

Back to the office we went, and before the night was through I had more to think about than moose pictures.  I also had to get the word out about the stolen tortoise.  Peter Lowry, who has parrots and other exotic animals at his home in East Albany, called to say someone had stolen his 100-pound African tortoise, which has a 24-inch shell.

What an incredibly rotten crime.  These creatures need particular care and whoever took it probably doesn’t know what to do.  I’m posting the photo here in hopes it might help catch the jerk that took Peter’s beautiful old tortoise, which he has owned for 19 years.

Peter Lowry's 19-year-old African tortoise was stolen.

Also this week my old friend Harold Nunn died.  Such an interesting man.  He worked with televisions and electronics but had a serious hobby of studying Native American lore.  He took me around to several sites one day.  My story about Harold appears on the Chronicle’s web site. We will miss Harold.

It’s snowing this morning in beautiful downtown West Glover.  But I still think we made it through winter, and this will melt away fairly soon.  Have a great weekend and keep an eye out for wandering moose and stolen tortoises.

Lucille Letourneau, Bill Bouvia, moose.

Heading up Water Street.

This is our next-door neighbor who first alerted us to the moose.

Tena, Paul, moose.

The moose is either on, or just behind, the ramp.

Bye bye Ms. Moose. Good luck out there in the world.

From the archives: Bull moose befriends Albany outdoorsman, the Chronicle, February 14, 2007

by Bethany M. Dunbar

IRASBURG — David Lawrence of Albany pulls up in his four-wheel-drive pickup through deep, hard, wind-blown snowdrifts.  It’s a trip he makes every day to see his friend, a huge tame moose he has named Bull.  With him in the truck are a pail of apples, a bag of jelly donuts, a loaf of bread, a 12-pack of Budweiser and a curious newspaper reporter.

Bull lives at the Doug Nelson farm, in a 40-acre fenced area with Asian elk fawns.  On the place there are also fallow deer, red deer, whitetails and other animals.

The fawns are pushing their noses through the fence, eating hay but hoping for some apples.

Mr. Lawrence looks around, waits for a bit, then goes back to his truck and honks the horn three times loudly, hollering, “Bull!”

From out of the woods trots a huge bull moose with a full rack.

Bull’s pasture is next to a 600-acre fenced place Mr. Nelson uses for controversial “canned hunts.”

In other words, someone can pay to come into the larger fenced area and hunt for an elk.

When the fence was built, the state of Vermont had not made rules for such hunts.  Mr. Nelson testified before the Fish and Wildlife Board at a public hearing in Montpelier on Monday night that he asked Fish and Wildlife officials at the time, about 14 years ago, what to do about the wild animals that would already be inside.  He got no answer other than that officials did not want him to build the fence.

The board has still not made rules, but that is likely to change later this month.  Mr. Lawrence is afraid the Fish and Wildlife officials will want to kill off the wild animals living within the fences, including Bull.

“I got him when he was a day old,” he said.  Bull will be four on April 24.

Mr. Lawrence helps Mr. Nelson feed and care for the various wild and domestic animals inside the fences.  Almost four years ago, he saw a cow moose inside the fence starting to give birth.  He knew there was a bear in the fence also, so he stayed and watched from a distance to see that everything went okay.  It didn’t.  The calf’s birth was extremely difficult for the mother moose, and she ran away shortly after the calf was born.

Mr. Lawrence left the baby alone for the day, watching to see what would happen.  When it became clear that the mother had truly abandoned the calf, he picked him up.

“Bull and I have been pretty much compatible,” Mr. Lawrence said.  “I’m the only one he 100 percent trusts.”

He said Bull is quite domestic.  He got out once last fall and was bothering the neighbors.  At that time, they had not locked the fence and someone left a gate open, so Bull wandered out.  But they got him back in and now the gates are all locked.

Mr. Lawrence said it’s not uncommon for a moose to abandon a new calf, and about two weeks after Bull was born it happened again at the Nelson place.  Mr. Lawrence raised that baby, a female, and named her Cow.

Mr. Lawrence has done a lot of hunting in his time, but he doesn’t do much now.  He’d rather take care of animals.  He does some nuisance trapping for people, if they have a skunk or a raccoon bothering them.  Last winter he had 16 skunks living in his barn.  Those are animals that he trapped for people and released in his barn.  By spring they were all gone, and there are none in there this winter.  Earlier this winter he trapped a feral cat for someone and brought it into his house.  He set up a litter box and food dish.  He has not seen the cat since, but it is eating and using the box.

“I think he’s better off in my house until spring,” he said.

Mr. Lawrence tamed a coyote once.  It was so tame it would ride with him in his truck, and she hung around for 12 years.

“Her name was Princess.  She was blonde,” he said.  “She was hard to control, but I did the best I could do.”

Mr. Lawrence even makes friends with chickens.  He had a chicken once that used to ride in his truck with him, and liked beer.  It would come running when he popped open the can.

“I used to hunt bear with dogs,” he said.  “We didn’t have electronic collars.”

He used to tramp all over the mountains looking for bear instead.

Hunting bears in a pickup truck with dogs that have electronic collars does not seem worse to Mr. Lawrence than canned hunts.  He said if you think about it, the animals inside the fence have a pretty good life and a clean death.  They don’t get hit by cars and they have plenty to eat.

When Bull gets done his apples, Mr. Lawrence mentions that the moose likes beer, too.  He says it’s kind of cold that day, and he might not want one.  But he pops the top and holds up the can of Budweiser just in case.  Sure enough, Bull reaches up to take a swallow.  Pretty soon the can is mostly gone, and Mr. Lawrence finishes it off himself.

“Needless to say my world 100 percent revolves around him,” says Mr. Lawrence.  He said he supposes Bull’s world pretty much revolves around Mr. Lawrence, too.

“Now what pisses me off about these Fish and Game people.  They talk about Vermont tradition.  Vermont tradition is really deer jacking, road hunting, and drinking beer.”

He said he thinks the Fish and Wildlife Department is jealous of Mr. Nelson’s operation because it actually makes money, while the department is short of funds these days.

“They’ve got too many biologists,” he said.

“If the government knew how they could make money, they’d be all over it — the same with marijuana,” he said.

He said canned hunts aren’t for everyone, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it.  But it can be quite challenging to find an animal within the confines of the fence, he said, and he is sometimes called in as a guide.

A lot has changed over the years, Mr. Lawrence said, and there continues to be more pressure on all the habitat.  It’s a problem that’s not going to get any better any time soon.

“The biggest problem in the world right now is overpopulation of people.”

While solutions to all the world’s problems don’t seem to be right at hand, Mr. Lawrence will no doubt continue to ponder them with his friend, Bull the moose, while sharing a jelly doughnut and a Budweiser.

I think we made it.

by Bethany M. Dunbar, April 9, 2010

The peep frogs were out at my house for the first time last night.  That sound always makes me stop and be just plain grateful to have made it through the winter.

They are two weeks early.  Is that a sign of global warming?

Even though the winter was an easy one in terms of lighter snowfall, less cold, and such, it was a really hard winter in other ways.  The economy has put such a strain on everyone it seemed like a darker winter, an uglier winter.

In times like this you find out who your friends are.  It turns out I’m pretty wealthy in that department.  You know who you are.

Barefoot in the cold mud with a cup of coffee, I am looking around at the spears of green in the perennial garden, the puss willows, and grass starting to get green, hearing the birds’ crazy loud wonderful morning chirp and clatter, soaking it all in.  I am willing to take all this as a sign that maybe things in general will lighten up in the same way the earth is doing.

The earliest sign of spring is coming earlier every year it seems.  Sugaring.

Coincidentally, it’s one thing that is still making people some really great, much-needed cash these days.

There are 2,000 sugarmakers in Vermont today.  That is compared to fewer than 1,000 dairy farms.

It starts in February.

Sometime late in the month a snowstorm comes along that is different — big flakes drifting down quietly.  We call that sugar snow because it means it’s time for sugaring.

In the woods a circle of melting snow appears around the base of the maple trees.  Warm days and freezing nights create the conditions.  The sap runs and the sugarmakers run even harder.

Sugaring is hard work, but it’s hard work to hate — outside in the spring time as things are melting.  The old-fashioned arrangement is to drill a little hole in the tree and put in a tap, a little spout, and hang a metal bucket with a cover on it.  Then you do what’s euphemistically called gathering.  Gathering is driving around with a tractor and big tank and large buckets, from tree to tree.  Grab the buckets off the spouts and dump the sap into the tank and try not to spill it and pour it on your blue jeans, which are most likely already wet from walking through snow.  Then hang the bucket back up.

Once you get it back to the sugarhouse, you boil it in a big arch, and it takes something like 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup.

A lot of people, probably most sugarmakers, use a system of plastic tubing to get the sap from the trees to the sugarhouse.  This can be enhanced with a vacuum.  In another post on this blog I interviewed Tim Perkins who invented a spout that might help make sugarmakers more productive with a simple check valve.

But whether the sugarmaker is completely old fashioned and boils the sap with a wood fire or the sugarhouse is so high tech it looks like the controls of a rocket ship, some things are the same.

Boiling maple sap makes a smell that just can’t be compared to anything else.  The taste of fresh, still warm from the cooking, maple syrup with a home made raised doughnut, eaten at the sugarhouse, is quite simply as good as it gets.

If you are interested in the whole local food movement and discussion, you will want to read Joseph Gresser’s review of The Town That Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt.  It’s available on the Chronicle’s web site.  Hey, let us know what you think.

Francis Taylor stokes his wood-fired sugaring arch. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Maple season starts early with record sap run

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, March 17, 2010

The maple syrup is lighter colored than usual, the season is early, and local sugarmakers have been boiling sap every day for the past two weeks.

They’re just hoping it won’t stop now — or if it does, it won’t be all done for the year.

That’s the word from producers so far in an unusual season.

“This has got to be the longest run that I’ve ever seen that we haven’t got a storm,” said Francis Taylor on Friday.  Mr. Taylor represents the second of a four-generation family operation in Albany.  He started boiling on Town Meeting Day and has been boiling sap every day since then.

Bucky Shelton of Glover said Tuesday he had boiled every day for the past two weeks, which is the most consecutive days of boiling he’s seen.

“This is my thirty-first year,” he said, and he has been keeping records of every day’s sugaring activity since he started.

Kelly Loftus at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said the trend is statewide.  The season is early, and particularly in the southern part of the state sugarmakers are afraid it could come to a sudden early end as well.

There are a lot more taps out there, Ms. Loftus said, but she did not have a number off hand.

A press release from the agency notes that there are about 2,000 maple producers in Vermont — which is close to double the number of dairy farmers.  Unlike milk, the price of maple syrup can be set by the producer depending on the market place.

At the end of 2008, prices rose to record highs — double the year before — as much as $55 a gallon.  So far, sugarmakers and the agency spokesman said prices are stable but might not be quite as high as last year’s.

Sugarmakers around Vermont hold a statewide open house March 26 through 28, and more information about which sugarhouses participate can be found at www.vermontmaple.org.

Vermont is the largest U.S. producer of maple syrup and produced 920,000 gallons of syrup in 2009, according to the press release.

Both Mr. Shelton and the Taylors are making light colored syrup, lighter than even the lightest table grade — light amber, also called fancy.  Mr. Shelton said he’s noticed this year’s syrup is not only lighter but has stronger flavor than usual — especially for such light color which often goes along with a more delicate flavor.

Mr. Shelton has 5,100 taps.

The Taylor family has between 2,200 and 2,300 taps, and three-fourths of the taps are running into buckets instead of into pipeline.  That means people have to gather all the sap.

But the Taylors are not lacking in people willing to help.  On the first day that they boiled, Mr. Taylor said, there were 34 family members and friends on hand to help.

Francis and Helene’s grandchildren spent a lot of time sliding on the steep hill behind the sugarhouse.  Getting covered with snow and mud is all part of the fun.

Another big part of it are the homemade raised doughnuts.  The Taylors have a “doughnut toaster” which is a thick stick with a nail in one end.  The doughnut is placed on the nail, held near the doors of the arch, toatsted, then turned around to toast the other side.  Then the doughnut is dunked in hot maple syrup best served in a cup so the remaining syrup left over can be drunk, straight from the cup.

Francis Taylor’s parents, Richard and Theresa, bought the sugarbush and sugarhouse in 1965.  It was built 70 years ago and lists to one side a little, but it’s clearly quite functional still.  The wood-fired arch has been added on to, but the main part is the original sap boiler that was put into the sugarhouse.

“I’m thinking maybe back then it was state of the art,” said Richard Taylor.

The Taylors said they love it when sugaring season starts because it’s such a great time to be outside and it’s a family enterprise.

“It’s a disease,” Francis Taylor said.  “It’s spring fever, you’d better believe it.”

By the time the season is done, they are relieved because sugaring can make for some long nights.

“Last year there was one night we got home at half past three in the morning,” said Richard Taylor.

When the weather becomes too warm at night, the sap won’t flow any more.  Another sign the season is over is when the buds begin to show up on the maple trees.

Mr. Shelton said the weather looks like it might be warming up too much in the coming week to keep up this record sap run.  But if it snows or gets cold again, the sap could flow some more.

“The following week we could be back in business,” he said.

Francis, Helene, and Richard Taylor at their sugarhouse. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Methane travels

by Bethany M. Dunbar April 2, 2010

I ran into Laurie Zilbauer of Northeastern Vermont Development Association at the NEK Energy Fair last weekend.

She told me a little bit about a study that was done on the potential of a community methane digester in that could be used by a number of dairy farms in the Charleston area.

The study showed that the community digester would not be feasible due to transportation costs.  But she added that the study was done a few years ago, and it should be updated for two reasons.

Smaller digesters might be available and change the economics, for one thing, and more than just cow manure could be used to make electricity.

These are intriguing questions.  To add a little more biomass to the alchemy of ideas here, it seems relevant to look to other places where people have been doing more with this technology.

To that end, I recently interviewed Bob Montgomery who traveled to Germany to look at their advanced systems of renewable energy.  That story is posted below.

If you check out the Chronicle’s web site, you will see a story written by Chris Braithwaite about his visit to a community digester in Oregon.

I have wondered how much of the cost of these massive digesters is about engineering each one to fit a particular farm.  Is there a way to cut the costs by designing something generic?

I can totally see how transportation costs could be a big factor.  To solve this problem, how about bringing in more cows?  If they are making too much milk, the milk could be dumped into the pit, helping make electricity and keeping the milk price in balance at the same time.  Or bring in more beef cows or collect the manure of all the alpacas, goats, sheep and horses and other farm animals around the state.  Or grow some energy crops specifically to put in the digesters such as what is being studied in Germany.

Crazy talk?  Crazier is the concept that we will just let all these dairy farms quietly go out of business without doing anything to help keep them here.  There are fewer than 1,000 dairy farms left in Vermont.  It’s time for some radical steps — maybe dumping milk into the digesters is one of them.

In 2008 I wrote an editorial about how Vermont needs more cows.  I haven’t changed my mind.  As a power source, cows are one of the best options.  So many of the other power sources create problems, while cows on the landscape enhance the environment, especially if their manure goes into a digester.

Editor travels to Germany to learn about renewable energy

Bob Montgomery of St. Johnsbury, in Germany, at a research plant. Photo courtesy of Mr. Montgomery

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, February 24, 2010

In Germany, energy and agriculture are tightly tied together.

“Germany has a national will to become more energy independent,” said Bob Montgomery, the editor of Farming, the Journal of Northeast Agriculture.

The journal is based in St. Johnsbury, and Mr. Montgomery got to find out firsthand about German energy and agriculture when he and nine other media people won a German grant for a trip to that country to see their accomplishments.

“If nothing else, Germans are thorough,” Mr. Montgomery said.

Mr. Montgomery’s trip was organized by a nongovernmental organization with a goal of creating connections between Germany and the rest of the world in order to drive sustainable development.  The group is called InWent, and Mr. Montgomery got an e-mail from someone about the trip suggesting that he should apply for a grant that would pay for the whole thing.  Ten people would be chosen.  The people who were chosen were seven print journalists and three radio reporters.

“I applied in July,” Mr. Montgomery said.  He didn’t hear back until about three weeks before he was supposed to go.  The trip was October 4 to 10.

Germany’s will to become more energy independent has to do with the people’s environmental awareness, but it’s also about the fact that a lot of their energy is imported from countries that might not always want to trade with them.

“You are at the mercy of whoever has the switch,” he said.

“They do a lot of solar and wind, and they’ve done it for a long time,” he said.

A bioenergy village powered and heated by renewable sources including methane digesters was the showpiece of the trip.

An arbitration process, free for all participants, has been established for questions of siting energy plants.

“It’s all mediation, and they have had fantastic success with it,” he said.

In Bavaria, one region of Germany, there are 21,000 wind turbines, 4,000 biogas plants, and 100,000 solar panels.

By 2050, Germany wants to be getting half its energy from renewable sources.  Mr. Montgomery said they are already ahead of the goals set in earlier years.

Biogas is being used, and research for more efficient ways to make and use it are ongoing.

“They’re researching multiple types of plants,” he said.  Among the meetings the participants had was one with a group called the Union for the Advancement of Oil and Protein Plants.  One of the plants being grown is rape seed, or canola.

The Germans are also growing hemp, cotton, switch grass, and miscanthus, a plant that can be harvested with corn harvesters but is good for the soil and does not need nitrogen.  It leaves a root ball behind that can be ground up as fertilizer for the next season.

The Germans have testing facilities for their digesters to determine which plants, or combinations of plants, make the most energy.

“They have a database of thousands of things,” he said.  They are creating energy recipes.

All this means more options for farmers, and more ways to make farming sustainable economically.  Dairy farmers are no longer completely dependent on a milk price they do not determine.

“They’re able to take low quality crops, or if there’s a price dip in rye grass,” the digester gives them a way to make some money on crops that might not otherwise generate income.

“Farmers get paid for manure,” he said.  In some instances there are digesters used by a group of farmers.  They bring the manure to the digesters and get paid for it — and get fertilizer and bedding.

Because Germany has a piping system for natural gas, gas for heating is easier to distribute it than it would be here.

The farms are not all gigantic in size.

“There was a 100-cow farm we visited right next to the village.”

Research is ongoing not only for crops but for bioenergy created from wood.  A research center for wood bioenergy has huge testing furnaces.

Two million hectares (almost five million acres) are planted with energy crops in Germany.  The Germans do not want to put so much of their land into energy crops that they will be taking away food crop land, but so far that has not been a problem.

Milk prices are bad for farmers in Germany as they are here, and Germany has been losing 5 percent of its farmers each year.  While the InWent trip was under way, there were protests by farmers who were dumping out milk.  Mr. Montgomery said statistics for farm income show that in Germany, about 25 percent of the farmers earn three times above the national average wage, but 75 percent earn 30 percent less than the average wage.  The farmers who had put in digesters and were working on energy crops were, as a rule, doing better.  Mr. Montgomery sees the possibilities for Vermont farmers as well.

Wind turbines were a big part of the picture, but Mr. Montgomery said they were not very near houses.

“It’s just not an eyesore.  It’s just cool,” he said.  The turbines are a symbol of independence, he said.  “They seem like they’re everywhere.”

He said there were more wind turbines in the northern parts of the country and more solar panels in the south.  Biogas and bioenergy plants are used to level off the energy spikes.

Mr. Montgomery heard about experiments with putting turbines near an old mining shaft, and running water down the shaft to a turbine at the bottom at times when the wind is not blowing.  In effect, energy is being stored in water instead of in batteries.

The bioenergy village is called Juhnde and has about 750 citizens.  The village gets 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a year from all over the world.  The village is run by a cooperative.

The former mayor of the town takes tourists around to see it.

“Now he’s the town guide and cheerleader,” said Mr. Montgomery.

Joining the village costs about 5,000 to 6,000 Euros per household, which is about $6,800 to $8,160.  The homeowner need not buy a furnace and never has individual maintenance issues.

The bioenergy village has 400 cows and 500 pigs.

Mr. Montgomery visited one of the three farms participating in energy production for the village.

“It looks like a Vermont dairy farm,” he said, set up with a freestall barn.  “Cows in Germany pretty much look like cows in America.”  The cows were Holsteins, a breed that originated in Europe.

The farmer told the visitors that energy farming was extremely helpful.  Mr. Montgomery said the farmer told them, “We would not still be in business if we were not able to sell our manure.”

He said they can’t make a living on milk anymore.

“For him it was a godsend.  It saved his farm.”

The Germans are also researching biofuels to run vehicles.  They have done some studies that show biomethane gets much more fuel per acre than biodiesel.  A car could go 67.6 kilometers (42 miles) on biodiesel from a hectare (2.47 acres) of crops, but that is only one-third of the distance the car can go on biomethane grown on the same amount of land.

Asked his main impression of the trip, Mr. Montgomery said, “It was bittersweet.”

He said he believes much of the technology could work here, but the politics are so different that it’s hard to picture it happening in the same way in the United States.

“The potential is there to save the dairy industry,” he said.  With energy farming, he said, “the milk is just icing on the cake.”

Dairy cows in a September pasture. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Editorial, the Chronicle, June 18, 2008

Vermont needs more cows

The Maxwells’ Neighborhood Farm in Coventry is putting in a methane digester.  With 1,000 cows, the farm will be able to produce enough electricity for about 200 homes.

That means it takes five cows to make enough electricity for an average home.

It will reduce greenhouse gases and bedding costs for the farm.  It will save sawdust for other uses such as wood pellets or chips for heat.  The liquid fertilizer will have just as many nutrients as it ever had, but it will smell better.

With about half the cost of $1.5-million covered by grants, the project is likely to pay for itself in five years.

This altogether seems like such a great idea for everyone involved that every farm ought to have one.  Some priority should be given to making these systems cost effective for smaller farms.

With 142,000 cows in Vermont right now, if all that methane was harnessed we could make enough electricity for 28,400 average homes.  Vermont has a population of about 600,000 people and about 240,000 housing units.

So more cows are what we really need in Vermont.  With the possibility of a more stable income for farmers, Vermont could conceivably reverse the recent downward spiral of farm numbers.

Wouldn’t that be a bright vision for the future? — B.M.D.