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Tales From Sugar Camp #1

Nothing gets me so excited as sugarin’ season. It’s cold and wet and windy and nasty out, but there’s the slightest hint of spring in the air. The sun hits different. Maybe it’s a little higher in the sky. The trees have something to give – sap! – and the wild offerings of the year begin. Rest time is over. From maple syrup to wool to vegetables and fruits to pasture and medicinal flowers and herbs to meat and eggs and more vegetables and more fruits and more pasture and at some point I will look up and go oh, it’s time to do Christmas tree stuff and before I know it I can rest again for a couple weeks.

To quote farmer and author Kristin Kimball, "Sometimes the work is enough to make you weep." If I'm not ready to weep, I ask myself what else I can do to get there. As Kimball writes, "[M]ost days I wake up grateful that I found it." I'm grateful I have the opportunity to do all this work, grow all this food, and live all this life. If I must weep once in a while, I will cherish it.

The nice thing about sugarin’ season is, it eases me in nicely to the chaos of the year. I get to stand outside and stare at a boiling sap kaleidoscope, the steady rumble of fire caressing the bottom of the steel pan, the steam wafting all around me, through me. I’m getting vitamin D and fresh air. Cleaned out and refreshed. I can think, and plan. It’s work….but it’s old-fashioned recreation, as well!

Traditionally, I’ve tapped around President’s Day of each year. The season usually doesn’t begin until early March, but there is always a February thaw that the ambitious sugarers catch. In early February, it was below zero for multiple days – and then it got warm real fast. Larger sugar houses threw their taps in and began catching the early runs. Much too early, but take it when it comes! On Super Bowl Sunday, I went out and began tapping. A full week early. By Wednesday night I had all 126 taps in. It came out in a fury and by the weekend I was ready to boil!

I was excited and anxious to boil this year because I purchased new equipment this offseason, including a new sugar pan. I also made some adjustments to the evaporator to improve efficiency, which means less time dilly-dallying. In ten hours I can now boil twice as much sap as I could with my old set-up.

For the last two weeks of February the sap came consistently as the days went above freezing – and barely got below. In fact, those of us standin’ ‘round evaporators were wondering if it might get below freezing soon enough. Nighttime temperatures above freezing can signal to the maple trees that it’s time to put production into flower buds, thereby ending sugarin' season.

In the meantime, I attended two meetings. The first was the NOFA NH Winter Conference in Manchester. This is a conference for farmers to attend educational lectures and socialize. In one lecture about planting fruit and nut trees, a farmer – much more experienced than I – asked the presenter if we should plant for Virginia’s climate, rather than New Hampshire’s. He was thinking 20-30 years down the line – maple season comes earlier and earlier every year, he said. As we all sat there and contemplated what he said, I thought about how I just tapped a whole week earlier than I used to. Climate change is a lot more interesting at the scene of the crime than it is on the mainstream news or social media.

The next week, Kay and I attended the Carroll County meeting for the New Hampshire Maple Producer’s Association. It was admitted in the meeting that the southern producers are nervous about the early start to the season. At the time, they didn’t even have any snow left. (Did it even snow down there? My friend on the seacoast joked that it might as well be rainy Seattle all winter.) At this point, it had started to get cold again around Sandwich and Tamworth, and the northern part of the state was still downright chilly. According to most producers, last year was a short season as well, thereby making this a trend. It felt long enough to me, as I boiled right into April. But every sugar bush is different. We have pockets of trees hiding in northern-facing woods, which might prolong the sap production. And being a smaller producer (trust me, 126 taps feels like a lot to me, but it's nothing to most sugar houses), it's hard for me to relate with those at the higher levels of the market.

And then someone told me a sugarer he knows in Chatham has seen buds forming on some of his trees already. Yikes!

And right on cue at the end of February, it froze up solid. A return to zero-degree temperatures brought ice into the sap buckets. On a Friday night under a Cheshire Cat moon with a negative-ten windchill I went out and read Wim Hof's book about embracing the cold while boiling ferociously.

"The cold is merciless but righteous," Wim writes. He promotes taking ice baths and cold showers regularly to improve vascular health, as well as other forms of physical and mental health. The cold teaches us to handle stress. We can control our response to stressful situations. "Do you want to learn to deal with stress, or do you want to continue suffering?" I take a three-minute cold shower every morning. Suddenly the all-night boil in the cold doesn't seem so bad.

But walking away from the reasonably warm evaporator to chip ice off the sap buckets felt like floating around the dark side of the moon. I’d warm my hands up in the steam and sit so close to the firebox I could feel the flames burning through my jeans. But reading about Wim spending entire nights in the snow wearing essentially nothing and setting world records for swimming under ice made me feel real roasty toasty.

In nine days I whipped up three batches of syrup, and had almost 25% of my expected crop for the season. Now, when the season is supposed to be rockin’, it’s too cold for the sap to run. It’s been nice to have some extra time to get ahead, though. I started herbs for the garden season. I’ve started a flooring project in the house. I learned how to make maple candies and maple sugar. And then we had a huge nor’eastah! So much snowblowing to do! I need to go dig all the buckets out of the snow and check all the tubing. Tonight I dug one bucket out and, lo! It was half full of sap! So there’s some trickling out. Hope yet....

Will the season pick up and run strong right ‘til April? Or will it stay cold right through Maple Weekend and then just...turn to spring? We ride the lion of March regardless…. Stay posted, folks!

Our early syrup is for sale now in our online Farm Shop. It's sweet and delicious and robust and has that hint of wild that permeates everything on our farm. That Sandwich Range Wilderness. Check it out!


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