In The Sugarbush

February 29, 2008

 “The most delightful of all farm work, or of all rural occupations, is at hand, namely, sugar-making… broad pans boil and foam; and I ask no other delight than to watch and tend them all day… I should at least be tempted to follow the season up the mountains, camping this week on one terrace, next week on one farther up, keeping just on the hem of Winter’s garment, and just in advance of the swelling buds, until my smoke went up through the last growth of maple that surrounds the summit.”

– John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine, 1881.


In The Sugarbush

Winter rarely ends before the alleged first day of spring this Thursday, March 20 when days and nights are equal length. The real first day of spring is more subjective.  Like beauty, spring lies in the eye of the beholder: when redwings arrive, crocuses bloom or – dare to dream – Home Opener at Fenway Park.

In the rugged hill country of the Sunapee region, spring arrives early, even before winter has quite finished. Spring truly begins in the snow-clad maple groves known as a “sugarbush.”

When deep winter snow finally begins to melt, sap buckets with lids are hung on sugar maples in the lower village. Up in the hills, maples may remain frozen. The maple sugaring season began slowly this year and the intermittent spring sap run is a few weeks late in many locales this year.

Last week, the sap wasn’t running, but local candidates were. Rancorous Town Meeting debates remind me that generosity of spirit may be hard to come by in March. When traditional harbingers of spring are late, March is virtually indistinguishable from January. Folks are desperately searching for hopeful signs that spring is indeed on the way. While there seems to be little comfort in maple woods where snow remains 2 to 3 feet deep, that is the right place to start.

Ted Young’s sugarbush is high on the south flank of Mt. Kearsarge in Warner. With the deep snow, reaching maples to place taps and affix plastic sap tubing requires snowshoes and persistence. Ted is working alone this morning – morning after Town Meeting - tapping ancient maples in strengthening sunshine.

"How's it going so far?" I ask. With a twinkle in his eyes, Young replies “Well I had a bit of a disaster already; electric drill died so I had to get the old gas-powered Tanaka drill running.”  It’s always something. "The sap isn’t really running yet today. I was hoping to have enough gathered to cook for the first time this weekend.” Rubbing his chin, Young admits he’s already missed a few chances to collect sap and begin boiling. “It ran a bit last week. Gerry Courser has already cooked twice but he tapped a while ago.”

Next door on Bob Bower’s Kearsarge Gore Farm, they had dug out sap lines and trucked sap from various roadside tanks to a large steel milk tank that gravity-feeds the sugarhouse. Bowers has 1000 taps set in his woods and may add 400 more on adjacent land where they lease a sugarbush. They cooked sap once so far on March 7. This week all is frozen up again and the snow remains piled high against the sugarhouse. Even when idle, the sugarhouse smells of pine boards, wood smoke and boiling maple sap.

Elsewhere in Warner, a large maple producer, Philip Rogers has 2,000 taps on a vacuum system and had already cooked 2 or 3 times and made nearly 100 gallons.

Ted Young lives amid a handful of colorful local sugar-maker characters who keep rural traditions alive. Working together with his son, Gary or his grandson, Teddy, some years Young had as many as 1000 maple taps. This year he has scaled back to several hundred. Tapping the family-owned sugarbush high on Kearsarge has been an annual rite of spring for years. “Now I’m working by myself this year”

Young and his wife, Liz had owned the Merrimack Farm Stores in Bradford and Henniker for years. I miss visiting their working sugarhouse in the center of Bradford. After they sold the store, Young moved his sugaring rig to his Tree Farm in Warner. The Farm Store still sells his Kearsarge Mountain Maple syrup.

The relocated, shiny steel evaporator pans now sit atop a cast iron "arch" which contains the wood fire. A stainless steel hood contains a maze of copper tubing which preheats cold, incoming sap in warm steam rising from the back sap pan. The uncovered front “finishing pan” is monitored carefully when cooking sap to exactly 218 degrees to reach ideal density at 11 pounds per gallon. Finished syrup is drawn-off and run through a high pressure filter press before being bottled in new plastic jugs for retail sale.

While all remains frozen and encased in deep snow, Young squints in the morning sunshine and says “I don’t know that it might just warm up today and start running maybe… I’ll likely still be up in back until dark.”

With little frost in the ground beneath deep snow, sugar-makers debate how long this maple season will last. Attempts to forecast sugaring seasons are always futile. The duration of sap runs and sugar content of the sap depend entirely on the weather and factors peculiar to the trees themselves. The right time to discuss the merits of a given sugaring season is after taps are pulled. "Ask me again in April" is a standard reply to queries about annual prospects.

South Sutton sugar-maker, Charlie Hosmer can remember specific years when the sap ran early or late. Hosmer says: "I remember once we tapped on the 28th of February and we was all done, washed up and the sugarhouse locked by March 3rd" he recalls. "I think some guys tap too early now. We get a warm spell around President's Day and some guys tap and then don’t get another drop for weeks. Every year, town meeting day was when we'd tap, give or take a few days either way, don’t you know."

While maple technology has changed, syrup prices haven’t. The price per gallon hasn’t risen relative to inflation. An increasing supply of Canadian maple syrup keeps prices paid to relatively small New England producers low. Some sugar-makers grumble that the huge maple factories of Quebec are government subsidized and that they can’t possibly compete.

To the uninitiated, sugaring seems timeless - a quaint rural occupation. But sugaring is hard physical work. It’s nearly pointless to calculate profits relative to the high cost of maple equipment and the hours of time and physical labor required to cut and split fuel wood, tap trees, gather sap, boil, jar-up and market local maple syrup. At forty or fifty gallons of raw sap to one gallon of finished syrup, it doesn't pay to measure hours of labor against what's ultimately produced. For many small, backyard maple producers, sugaring remains a labor of love.

Successful yet often cynical sugar-maker, Ben Kezar from Springfield told me: "It’s a helluva lot of work for nothing. It’s not so much a business as a disease! My dad used to say when the Lord made men for maple sugaring, he first give ‘em a spine of steel, and then took out half their brains!” Veteran sugar-makers will confess that they can’t wait to get started tapping by late February. Then after the sap has been running for several weeks, they can’t wait to pull taps and wash up in April.

According to local legend, a sugar-maker annually tapped a few telephone poles and hung sap buckets on them. Folks living in the village debated whether it was meant as a joke or whether he’d “gone on a bender.” That farmer gave up both his sugaring and his drinking in latter years. That is no coincidence.

Winter’s end may be reason enough for celebration. The warmer weather does provide a good excuse for mischief – ask any Leprechaun. A change from stale winter routines is a kind of “spring tonic,” an old-fashioned term which could apply to staying awake all night during a long boil inside a steamy sugarhouse.

Each year, I wonder anew if the sugaring business is a severe symptom of acute spring fever or the ultimate antidote.

You can find out yourself during the NH Maple Producers annual “Maple Weekend” events held at local sugarhouses statewide. Visit nh .mapleproducers .com for more information. 

Naturalist, Dave Anderson is director of education for The Forest Society. He can be reached at danderson @ forest society .org or through the Forest Society web-site: forest society .org