After spending all day Friday in the maple sweat lodge that we call the Sugar Shack, I am afraid that maple season is drawing to an end, and as a farmer often does throughout the year, I feel slightly thwarted by nature. As most of New England eagerly awaits the increasing number of nights that are above freezing, I have been dreading them, as the maple trees rush toward budding and the end of the season’s sap production. We started off the maple season with chilly days, and the trees were slow to respond to the coming of spring. Suddenly, we have this past week of balmy nights with no sap flows; somewhere in those few short weeks between, we had a couple of magical days where the sap literally flew out of the trees. If you broke the tip of a branch, the sap was even forced to flow out the broken bud! What a marvel of nature that is the sugar maple.
This is my first maple season as a farmer. I came into this position of authority over the Sugar Shack with two weekends of “vacation” maple sugaring up at a family member’s sugar bush in Vermont. I say “vacation” because any maple sugaring that involves a hot tub is surely a pleasurable weekend more than a true training experience. This February, I received a quick overview on the operations of Land’s Sake’s Sugar Shack and was left to my own devices…my own forgetful devices. Thank goodness we have a staff of amazing people with varying degrees of experience in maple and all very willing to answer my questions at all hours (Thanks, Doug). To kick off the boiling season, I got the fire roaring in the evaporator and cleared Dave to go get himself some morning coffee, while I tended the fire and sap levels. Since I had forgotten to get vegetable oil, Dave was happy to swing by the store on his way back. Unfortunately, I was a little too good at making big fire fast, which made for big boil fast, which resulted in what I deemed the “foam monster” emerging from the rear pan, grasping at me with bubbly arms and hissing in satisfaction. I panicked. Like kryptonite to Superman, fat is the only way to defeat the “foam monster” of maple, and I was fresh out. I tried to gently comb the foam down, expecting a purring submission, but no such luck. I called Dave and politely asked him to “Hurry!”. Upon his arrival, I was able to break the surface tension of the monster, and since then, I have yet to sight it again. It was just testing me on my first day and, realizing my competence and vigilance, has retired for another year.
The rhythm of the sugar shack is one I can appreciate, as a creature that really loves a routine that I can master and then repeat mindlessly. You would think that a twelve hour day in the Sugar Shack with only two draws and two bottlings would be a day of empty spaces, with time to ponder the upcoming farm season and time to get “stuff” done. Lists, guides, planning, blogs, reading…I had big plans to get all these things accomplished while a captive audience to the evaporator. However, maple season has its own rules about consistency and constancy and quickly turns into a full-time job. Check the fire, push it back, add wood to one side, check the levels in the pans, adjust the float valves, check the levels in the sap tanks, estimate the length of boil until the next draw, check the temperature gauges, skim the foam, rinse out supplies, check the fire, push it back, add wood to the other side, check the levels, draw off, rinse the filters, check the temperature, and so on. Suddenly, the rhythm shifts at 219 degrees and a flurry of new activity kicks in involving bottles and caps, sticky gloves, damp clothes, occasional cracked glass, spills, and attempts to get the last dregs out of the finishing pan and into our mouths. Yes, as you may have suspected, the perks to tending the sugaring process happens to be endless syrup gleanings. I have planned my trip to the dentist this spring accordingly.
After completing my first year as Assistant Farm Manager at Land’s Sake, I feel that maple sugaring is definitely the task we undertake that is truly a team effort, a task that unites Farm, Forestry, and Education and links us to the greater Weston community. At Land’s Sake, we all have a to-do list that extends beyond the hours of the day, but when the sap is flowing, we are all on Team Maple. I feel that maple season is the team-building “retreat” every organization needs. We practice maple-themed communication and coordination, sacrifice and support, and frustration and camaraderie. Every day of maple brings new wonders, melting snowdrifts, steamy vistas, the sweetest scent in the world (in my humble opinion), ever-shifting, glowing embers, and my stunningly handsome dog sunning himself, to name a few. I have thoroughly enjoyed the season of maple sugaring, and I feel that I only need another ten seasons before I reach the level of expertise that a nearby farmer has attained, where she is rumored to be able to hear when the maple is at proper syrup density. How amazing is that? For now, it appears that nature may be shutting off the taps, and I turn toward the thawing fields to see what else nature has to bring this year.
Hope to see you all at the Sugaring Off Festival next Saturday, March 26th, from 9 til 1 at the Bill McElwain Sugar Shack at the Weston Middle School! Come for pancakes, sugar-on-snow, bluegrass, maple tours, and of course, our “Weston-famous” maple syrup.
Assistant Farm Manager and Maple Production Manager