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

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