“Maple producers are a bunch of worrywarts, you know that, right? This is the time of year when they worry about the weather. They are like corn growers, saying that the crop is lost two or three times in a single year.” – Bruce Bascom in The Sugar Season, by Douglas Whynott
Every year I tap around President’s Day, which is early according to historical standards – Town Meeting Day has always been the day on the calendar in typical New England towns. But with the invention of tubing and vacuum – and warming temperatures – maple sugarin’ season has moved up a few weeks for many.
I took advantage of an early sap run during the February thaw, getting a short ‘n sweet Batch #1 done. And then the zero degree days returned and shut all my taps down. March roared in like the lion it is, and buckets, buckets everywhere! I spent more time hanging the blown-over buckets back up than I did collecting sap. Every time I looked at the weather report, I’d see some 35-40 degree days, but they were always a week away.
Paranoia set in. I began wondering if my taps were going to prematurely shut down for the season before the real runs began. Did I sacrifice a gold rush for one batch worth of early season sap? Sugar houses to the south of us were already posting videos on social media of their evaporators running. Fear of missing out haunted me. I checked that weather report hourly, it felt like. Kay reminded me to relax; she showed me an Instagram post from last year – our first boil wasn’t even until March 12! And here I am in early March with a boil already complete. Then, casually, I saw a post from a sugar house closer to us, and they announced they were just getting ready to party. Things are a little behind up here in the shadows of the Whites, you know.
And then I boiled Batch #2. By the end of the day, I had refilled my sap supply to an amount higher than it was before the day began. And now, those 35-40 degree days were much closer on the calendar. The wild maple season was beginning!
“The average person who comes into this store. . . actually they are not the average kind of person. They tend to be self-employed. Someone who has four thousand taps and wants to have a small business. Someone who wants a little pain in his life.” – Bruce Bascom, in The Sugar Season
I’m not self-employed and I only have 108 taps, but as I farmer-carry buckets of sloshy sap down steep, snowy ridges in my woods, I completely understand the bit about wanting a little pain in my life. There ain’t no better feeling than pouring the sap into the storage tank, easing my aching muscles; but then I turn back for more. Oh, but I love it. I embrace it fully. This is what people have done for millennia – worked hard, gone to bed tired, gorged on the fruits of their labor knowing they darn well earned it – and I’ll happily continue the tradition. Maybe when I’m 70, I’ll change my mind. But I’ve met plenty of old Yankees ‘round these parts that certainly have the vigor to be out in the sugar bush lugging buckets around. I don’t think I'll get sick of it, ever.
When I first came to Quebec to talk to sugarmakers I thought I would see the powerhouse in action, the 100 million pounds manifested in industrial-sized buildings, but what I saw most of all were family sugarhouses, each family having worked diligently over the years to make the dream of sugarmaking, their particular dream, come true. – Douglas Whynott, The Sugar Season
I’ve just finished reading Whynott’s book The Sugar Season, a half-memoir/half-journalism exploration following Bruce Bascom and company around their dealings in the maple industry. Bascom Maple Farms is one of the largest producers of maple syrup in the northeast, as well as one of the largest buyers and sellers of the product, as well. They are in the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire, and I have decided to purchase my sugaring supplies from their shop, as I prefer to buy it in person. Plus it’s just more fun to adventure out that way now and then.
At one point in the book, the author visits one of Bascom’s buying agents, a Quebecois fellow who bounces back and forth between Canada and Maine securing barrels of syrup to ship back to Bascom’s. The maple syrup industry is a wild one, particularly when you get into Quebec and its monopolistic structure known as The Federation. But what I found absolutely charming was the author’s foray into the maze of dirt roads and maple trees up to countless small “sugar camps” – and by small, I mean thousands of taps, small for Quebec – and the people and stories therein.
These “sugar camps” are full-time seasonal jobs for the folks who run them. But they remain just large enough to keep the tradition alive. The buyer makes his rounds, everyone gets their cut, and see ya next year. Most of the sugarmakers inherited the property from family – and if something does come up for sale, it usually is more expensive than what the taps can actually produce. They really don’t want outsiders taking over. The author himself was looked at sideways more than once, he notes.
Sugaring certainly is a labor of love at this small-scale level. It’s interesting to me dabbling in the middle space – not just a hobbyist with a few taps trying to boil up a gallon for the family, nor a massive sugarhouse shipping in barrels of syrup from all over the United States and Quebec. I felt kinship with the proprietors of the “sugar camps” – and I look forward to presiding over my own sugar camp in the next few weeks.
“My grandfather said the evaporator will talk to you. You just have to listen.” – Brad Gillian, in The Sugar Season
After a few warm days in March, the weather turned just right. The sap started coming and I began boiling it away. The boiling sap, increasingly darker as the water gives way to sugar, the steam, the woodsmoke, the flames in the arch, the crackle of burning pine branches, the gusting wind, the full moon. Sugaring season is upon us and I enter the trance. It’s long and laborious, but it welcomes me in. Hours pass by without pause, suddenly it’s dark and I need to race in to get my headlamp. The evaporator and I have a long conversation, deep into the night.
Our syrup is for now for sale! Please visit the Online Farm Shop to purchase a bottle! You can have it shipped to you or you can pick it up from the farm! Thanks for reading. -R