Vermonters, visitors seek out sugarhouses for samples and funBy Gale hanson
cORRESPONDENT | March 24,2013Vermont’s maples may blaze in autumn but this is the state’s sweetest season — a brief moment measured in weeks when liquid gold can flow, an unimpeded river of riches, should Mother Nature only choose to cooperate.
By most accounts 2012 was one of the worst seasons for sugaring in memory. Total state production of syrup dropped by 34 percent to 750,000 gallons, which still placed Vermont at the pinnacle of syrup production nationwide.
In Poultney at Green’s Sugarhouse, Rich Green has been sugaring since he was a boy.
“The family has been in this valley since 1774,” Pam Green said. “Last year we had only half a season, but this year it’s been good. This past Thursday and Friday the sap started running again so we’ve got plenty of sap for plenty of people.”
Like others, Green said this year’s weather is “normal” for a sugaring season. “The freeze-up is just going to recharge the trees so we’ll be ready when it does happen. You just have to learn to wait it out.”
At Ferne Hollow Farm in Florence, Lisa Wright-Garcia has 425 taps out — half drip into buckets and the other half on a gravity line.
“If I’m lucky I’ll get 100 gallons,” she said. “That would be a very good year for me.”
Wright-Garcia is an eighth-generation Vermonter who has only been sugaring for the past three years. Hers is an operation that runs on lots of volunteer help and a bit of romance.
“I have a neighbor who still brings the buckets down behind big black Percherons,” she said, referring to a breed of draft horse.
“That’s what my vision is of what sugaring should be,” she said. “I’m like a lot of Vermonters who just do it for the love of it. For the chance to reconnect with the community. We’ve got a pretty little red sugarhouse out here, and it’s my baby.”
This year the season started up in early March but has slowed to a standstill. But nobody’s calling the game — the smart money says that by next week sap will start running again.
“All we need are 12 good days,” said Burr Morse of Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in East Montpelier. “We’re about a quarter of the way there. But so far the quality of the syrup has been very good.”
This weekend 75 maple syrup producers across the state are opening their sugarhouses for the annual celebration known as Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, which continues through today.
From big producers with 50,000 taps or more to backyard operations that make just enough syrup to keep a family in properly dressed Sunday pancakes, it’s a great time to hit the road and keep your eye peeled for the tell-tale sign of rising steam.
While the cold snap of the past two weeks has lulled the sap into solitude, there were lots of high spirits among the folks out and about on a blustery Saturday.
Maple producers are crossing their fingers for at least one more good run. And there’s hopeful talk about the April sap run in 2011 that made that year one of the most productive on record.
“Last year we were completely done sugaring by now,” said Joan Guyette Worth, who produces syrup with her husband, Bill, in Newport. “It was 80 degrees outside a year ago. People were mowing their lawns. We were shut down.”
This year they’ve already made 260 gallons of medium-grade syrup and are readying for a hometown crowd that will come for Joanne’s “Gran Peres,” an epic French Canadian comfort food that consists of a homemade dumpling soaked with maple syrup.
At the Goodrich Farm in Cabot, where some 45,000 taps dot the sugarbush, and photos of two daughters who have held the title of Maple Queen dot the wall, Ruth Goodrich said the family hopes to produce 20,000 gallons this year.
“Sugaring season is always a good season,” she said with the knowing smile of someone who’s not surprised by much.
Pride of place at the Goodrich sugarhouse goes to an evaporation system that dwarfs the room and is so shiny it seems to illuminate the room.
Glen Goodrich, who describes himself as a tinkerer, is pouring thimbles of syrup the color of sunshine off to a few guys who have stopped by to literally see how things are sugaring off.
They sip it like the finest cognac and then stretch out their empty cups for another taste. You know you’re in Vermont when “Nothing to complain about there” is a high compliment.
“Allow me to give you a quick lesson in thermodynamics,” is how seventh-generation sugarer and former St. Johnsbury Academy teacher Glenn Goodrich introduces himself before explaining how the evaporator can fully recover the steam used in the evaporation process and use it again.
His sugaring innovations have been used throughout the industry with manufacturers in Vermont and Quebec using his designs.
“My father Morris Wood up in Kirby didn’t need to use anything to tell when the sugar was ready,” said his son, Rodney Wood, who was admiring Goodrich’s set-up. “He could just smell it. During the war when there was sugar rationing he had people lining up to buy his syrup for $3.39 a gallon.”
Goodrich said, “In 1944 Vermont produced 1 million gallons of syrup. It was like every farmer in Vermont with a tree tapped it.”
The following year, he said, it dropped to about half that. And then production just kept going down.
“People were eating packaged, processed bad food, and then in the 1980s we started to see production go up again,” he said. “It’s different now. People come here and they think they’ve been eating maple syrup all their lives and they haven’t. And once they’ve tasted it, they’re hooked.”
Down the road at Bragg Farm, where all the trees are tapped with buckets, Doug Bragg takes a break from loading logs onto the fire.
“We’ve done about 100 gallons so far,” he said. “And it has been really high quality. Last year’s syrup was not very sweet. But this year it’s tasty.”
A line of folks snakes its way from the sugarhouse into the snack bar, where folks are lined up to fork over five bucks for sugar on snow. This only-in-Vermont speciality features, in this case, a bowl of granular ice and a cup of maple syrup topped off with an unsweetened donut. The hot syrup hits the snow and caramelizes into a thick, gooey mess that is then scooped up by the donut. A little goes a long way.
“It’s awesome. That’s all there is to say about it,” said Marcus Aylward of Barre, who was there with his mom, Kate, and two brothers, Cooper and Jonathon.
“The snow is the best part,” Cooper declared.
“From where I lingered in a lull in March
outside the sugar-house one night for choice,
I called the fireman with a careful voice
And bade him leave the pan and stoke the arch:”
from Robert Frost’s 1920 poem,
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