April, Part 2

After a year of Covid disorientation came an April of disorder. Hot, dry, then snow on the daffodils. But remember – April is often like that. 

An unusually large number of mourning cloak butterflies this year, it seemed to me. Also, other members of the Nymphalidae family that overwinter as adults, such as the delicate Compton tortoiseshell. And song sparrows everywhere. The songs of these cute little birds vary, but most begin with two to five long notes, followed by a string of  gibberish. 

Perhaps inspired by a year of social distancing, I took to studying the way that flocking birds space themselves. Robins in fields tend to stay four or five feet apart. Juncos, at a bit more than half the size of robins, keep about 18 inches apart. Does this suggest a feeding area that a given bird can expect to exploit? Or could it have to do with predators? Or basic bird hygiene? They all seem to know the rules.

Meanwhile, barring a huge snowfall, the end of April features a lot of false hellebore – the big plants that turn the moist edges of fields and swamps a vibrant green. Many trees  – silver maples, red maples, and willows – have finished flowering and wild bees and honey bees will need to find pollen elsewhere, among the march marigolds perhaps or the sugar maples.

Gathering wild leeks for dinner provides a chance to listen to kingfishers rattling, grouse drumming, phoebes singing (yes, technically it is a song), peepers peeping, and wood frogs imitating ducks.

April, Part 1

In early April,  when the snow recedes, you can finally see the earth, which really only happens for a few weeks each year. You see it through and around the crushed thatch in the meadows. In the forest it exists in halos around tree trunks and as little islands in the deteriorated leaf litter. Buried things – old bottles, plowpoints, license plates – get heaved to the surface, and there’s this brief window where the past reasserts itself. Then the spring rains come, and the first blushes of green start to obscure things. 

The winter snow disappeared in southwestern Vermont in late March, and by mid-April the earth-seeing window had passed. Early April was jarringly hot. There was a 5-day stretch from the 7th through the 11th when highs soared into the 70s each day — about 20 degrees above normal. But then a spring snowstorm on the 16th restored something of a natural order, though it stayed dry.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 7 of 7

There are things that make someone a good sugarmaker, like an understanding of forest health, keen attention to detail, endurance. But at the end of the day, the success of any given season mostly comes down to the weather, which no one has any control over. This season ended up being a perfect case in point. 

It was a cold and snowy February in southern Vermont, so there was no meaningful February sap run. We got a minor run on the first day of March, but then a cold front moved in and it didn’t get above freezing for seven straight days. The trees don’t run when they’re frozen, so this amounted to a lost week. We could have, in theory, made up that lost time in April, but only if it stayed cool and March-like. It did not. Three days into the warmup we had a three-day stretch where the highs reached 60, 66, and 56, temperatures that are really too warm. You can absorb a three-day stretch of this, but the seven-day heat wave that came on March 20 – 26, when temperatures soaring into the mid-70s, was just too much. The warmth changed something in the trees, which changed something in the sap. Last week, the syrup went off-flavor. The sap still came after that, but neither we nor the place where we sold a portion of our sap this year thought it was worth the time and effort to collect and boil it. And so we’re done.

Examining the weather from a different angle, I noted that this March, in our woods, there were 11 days when it was in the 30s or below – a little too cold. And there were 11 days when it was 60 degrees or higher, which is a little too warm. That left just 10 days in the sweet spot. I hauled sap on 22 days this season. Last year, when the weather was more consistent, I hauled sap on 32 days in a season that started on February 24 and ended on April 2. As the days-spent-hauling number would suggest, our yield this year was off by almost a third compared to last. In 2020, our Maple Hill bush averaged 29.5 gallons per tap, this year the average was 20.6. 

But it is what it is. Compared to last year, this season was a disappointment. But one of the good things about getting older is that your perspective broadens. As a young man, I used to be happy with 12 gallons of sap per tap. Middle-aged me is balking that I even wrote that line, thinking that there was a lot less riding on a season when i was 25 years old. But young me is still in there somewhere, and immensely grateful that the trees gave so much. 

Bulk syrup prices have been creeping downward for the last decade as production boomed in the Northeast, and an off year, production-wise, that keeps the packers honest and a little scared about supply probably doesn’t hurt in the grand scheme of things. 

Near the end of the season, I just happened to look closely at the tongue that connects the trailer hitch to the pickup and noticed that it had cracked and was hanging on by a strip of twisted metal. Had the trailer broken free with a load of sap on it, it could have been a disaster. That didn’t happen. 

Near the end of the year I found a spotted salamander trapped in a bulk tank swimming in 1,600 gallons of sap. I pumped it down and climbed in and rescued the silly thing. Later, I told my 4-year-old about it, and the next day, I’m told, it was the talk of Evergreen Preschool. Nobody there would have even comprehended what 20 gallons of sap per tap means, but the fact that I rescued a salamander gave me Ryder-from-Paw-Patrol status. I felt like I earned a bit back in her eyes after being gone so much for the last two months.  

We’ll get through this pandemic and there will be better days ahead. Thanks for reading.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 6

Stress tends to distill us, accentuating our base personality traits. Maureen Dowd wrote a political column about this recently, pointing out that the stress of the Presidency made Jimmy Carter more preachy, Bill Clinton more self-indulgent, George W. Bush more insecure, Barack Obama more professorial. 

But you certainly don’t have to be a president to experience some version of this. I tend to lose myself deeply in things, and the stress of pandemic life, combined with the stress of the maple season, have certainly magnified this trait. As I’ve lost myself in sugaring, it’s been a struggle to be a good father, and partner, and friend, and good teammate to people I work with on the Almanac. There’s some of this every year, but this year more so. I’ve neglected emails for a month because in my down time I couldn’t bring myself to even turn on the computer. Friends would ask if they could help lessen the sugaring load, but I couldn’t think of how they might – there was just no capacity for peripheral thought. The part that stings the most were all the times I’d have to stop in the house to work on a broken pump part, or get a tool, or get wash water, and my four-year-old would be there and say: “Dad, let’s play!” and I’d respond numbly with: “I have to work, honey.” And then I’d go back to work, over and over again, a lot of days from before she woke up to after she went to bed. In hindsight it doesn’t seem like it would have been that hard to spare 20 minutes, but I just kept grinding. It was what-not-to-do parenting right out of a Harry Chapin folk song. 

This is weirdly personal for a maple blog, I know, but I’ll bet you anything you recognize some stress-induced distillation in your own life these days. We’ve spent a year now being isolated from one and other, which is its own sort of trauma beyond whatever financial and health-related traumas people have endured. Of course it’s changing us.

There’s something to note here, too, in that farming in general and sugaring in particular is immensely stressful on a professional scale. That’s something that’s often glossed over in the PR copy. Rick is the name of one of the guys at XR Maple I sell sap to, and I don’t think he sleeps during the season. I got texts from him at night during tapping season from the woods, tapping in the dark with a headlamp. I’d deliver a load at 9 pm and he’d be there starting the RO and heading out to haul sap. I’d bring another load at 4 am and he’d still be there. I have this image as I write this of him standing in front of the heater in the RO room, cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a long ash on the end of it, absorbing the heat while looking just bone tired, before a wave of energy courses through him, and he whirls off for another 20 hours of climbing mountains and hauling sap and emergency repairs and making syrup. 

There’s joy in this work, some of it the same sort of adrenaline-fueled, masochistic joy that endurance athletes crave. But when that adrenaline subsides, you’re sometimes left feeling despondent and alone.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 5

The trees opened up yesterday and the sap ran as fast as I’ve ever seen it run. By the end of the day I’d collected 9 loads worth, or almost 7,500 gallons. Sap is crystal clear and the syrup has an exquisite flavor.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 4

We made our first syrup of the year on March 10. Dad used a wheeled walker to get out into the sugarhouse, though he suffered from a lack of mud tires. We still use wood to fuel our evaporator, and fire loading is out of the question for him with his injury. He tended the reverse osmosis machine and filter press, though. And canned the syrup once we had a system set up right. 

After two months of deep cold and snow, we endured a three-day stretch of 60-degree-plus warmth that only a sugarmaker could complain about. One day touched 70 degrees here in southern Vermont. Sap runs are a Goldilocks-type proposition: we don’t want things too cold or too hot. If forced to choose one, we’d choose too cold, since that just puts things on pause. When it gets above 50 degrees, the sap starts to degrade, so it’s a race to get things processed. This degradation also creates a slime on the inside of a taphole which eventually stops the sap from flowing out of the tree. This is a weeks-long process, but the wheels get set in motion by high temperatures, and every high temperature accelerates the process. 

In light of this, the deep snow that we fought all spring getting tapped became an ally. The deep snowpack around the bulk tanks served as refrigeration – on the third day of the heatwave, the sap was still 39 degrees when we fed it into the RO. The color of the syrup we made with it suffered as it warmed in the bulk tank before boiling, but the flavor had the sweet, buttery, delicate profile you’d expect from first run sap.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 3

One marker of a healthy rural economy is the existence of markets for secondary or minor products. If you’re a hardwood sawmill, your business, in theory, is producing furniture-grade boards. But at times the difference between red and black will be markets, or a lack thereof, for mat timbers (disposable beams used in the construction industry to stabilize the ground beneath heavy equipment), or pallets, or even the sawdust you produce. 

All Ag is like this, including sugaring. In theory, I’m in the business of crafting the maple syrup that sells directly to the consumer on our website or through the stores that carry our product – “table syrup,” in the industry. But I also need markets for the off-flavored “commercial grade” stuff that’s produced at the end of each season when the weather turns. On a year like this, because I’m a one-man show, a market for raw sap is playing a crucial role. I’ll be selling the sap for pennies a gallon instead of the dollars per gallon that any syrup I made from it would bring, but I’m also being paid in time that I can then use to both get woods work done and make what syrup I can.

I’m selling the sap to XR Maple, in the town of Arlington which is just north of here. It’s a family operation, where the father and son run around 9,000 taps and the father’s brother runs an adjacent retail store where they sell a good chunk of their crop. They’re all in on maple, with plans of expanding to 20,000 taps, so they have plenty of RO capacity and the storage to buy a large chunk of my crop and process it. It’s a cool example of two businesses helping each other out, which is the rule in so much of the ag world. It can be lean out there, so there’s strength in numbers. 

I was able to sell 4,700 gallons of sap last week while I finished tapping in the warmth, but then a ferocious cold arrived on 60-mile-per-hour winds that ended the first run. While there was some damage to the sap lines from falling limbs, I got most of it cleared up. The snow glazed over, and the hillsides glared sharply. If you dropped a tool on a hillside, you could count on it sliding 50, 60, 70 feet before it came to rest. 

I came across a coyote bed in the upper reaches of the Hall bush, and saw evidence where it had ripped a maybe 4-foot section of sapline off and then chewed it to bits. One of the intact bits still read “food grade,” which I imagined the coyote reading and misinterpreting. Bad jokes aside, it’s that time of winter where you start to worry about wildlife, and in a dark moment I could imagine the coyote starving and desperate for food. But I don’t think that’s what was happening here. I think it was more play – the tubing a chew toy not unlike what you’d buy in the store for the family dog.

At Work With Vermont Evaporator

When we see the Made in Vermont stamp on an agricultural product, we view it as a badge of quality. We probably know the town where it’s made, and might even know the people who made it. We can assume that it’s produced in relatively small quantities, and can imagine the care that went into its production – something we rarely expect in mass-produced products. The same is true with durable goods, and that’s part of what makes Vermont Evaporator such a cool story. This Made in Vermont item is itself much like the syrup it produces: hand-crafted with pride in small batches.

We caught up with Vermont Evaporator founder Kate Whelley McCabe to find out what goes into making each of company’s flagship Sapling evaporators. She provided this series of photos and walked us through the production process at Vermont Evaporator’s Montpelier headquarters.

“We special-order new, unpainted and unlined, 55-gallon steel barrels,” Kate explained. Most barrels sold are treated inside and out to protect the metal or the contents being stored. “But we’re not using the barrels to store something; we’re using the barrels to do something,” she noted. She added that most barrels are standardized by volume size rather than height and width; but in order to standardize the manufacturing process (the jigs used, the boxes for shipping, etc.), Vermont Evaporator has to be very careful to be sure they are getting barrels with exactly the same dimensions every time. (Also in the photo: Oliver, the shop dog, guards the door.)

The new barrels are placed in a jig and cut using a plasma cutter; the heat from the process lights up the inside a bright red as the employee makes the cuts. “Behind him is a giant fan that removes the fumes,” said Kate. “And we’re sure that all of our employees wear all of the necessary protective equipment.”

In this photo, the front door of the evaporator has been cut out, and the top opening where the pan will sit is being cut. An opening on the back for the smokestack will also be added.

Here, in an artistic shot that Kate said could be called “Portrait of a Barrel,” all of the cuts have been made. A frame to hold the pans has been attached along the sides of the top opening. And now it’s time for the “media blasting” – this essentially sands the barrel to prepare the surface before a coating is applied. “Instead of sand blasting, we use aluminum oxide,” said Kate. The employee dons fully protective PPE, including a helmet/mask with clean air supply hose before entering the blasting room to begin the process.

Vermont Evaporator achieves a durable protective coating for its evaporators without using a typical paint. “The wet part of paint is a solvent, and that’s actually the toxic part,” Kate explained. Instead, the company uses a dry particulate [often called a powder coating], which is blown onto the barrel. Here, the soon-to-be evaporator is being removed from the high-temperature oven that “cures” the powder coating.

At this point, the pieces all come together. This evaporator, which is sitting up on its back end for assembly, has been outfitted with a door frame and door, as well as the company’s emblem. A vent will be added (the holes for it are already cut).

One part of the evaporator that’s not manufactured in Vermont is the stainless steel pan in which sap will be made into syrup. “We sourced everything in Vermont at first, but the company that made the pans unfortunately went out of business,” said Kate. “But we kept in New England – the pans are currently coming from the Springfield, Mass., area.” Vermont Evaporator looked into producing its own pans, but the materials involved require highly specialized equipment and expertise. “Our pans are food-grade stainless steel with lead-free welds. Stainless is a whole different beast; we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and highly specialized skills.”

Almost ready: These saplings are boxed and ready to go, with hand-written notes indicating the final pieces needed before shipping. Since Covid, customer pick-ups have been impossible, so all Vermont Evaporators are now shipped; this critical part of the process is expensive and requires careful packing and a lot of attention to detail, said Kate. It’s also another area where the special nature of doing business in Vermont pays off. “UPS is really good at their job. And I’ve built up a good rapport with our driver over the years,” she joked. “I’m talking making him Christmas cookies! We’ve worked out a system where he knows when we have boxes that really need to get out. Personal relationships really help.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 2

The first sap runs of the year came right on schedule last week, though because I’m still trying to get tapped and achieve good vacuum levels, I didn’t capture the sap. On a normal year Dad and I would have divided the labor; he’d have collected and boiled, I’d have stayed working in the woods. But he’s nursing a leg injury this year and largely unavailable. In light of this, it made more sense to me to try to get the woods right first and then worry about the sap later. 

 So what does good vacuum level mean? Technically-speaking, it means a system that holds over 25 hg (inches of mercury). “Inches of mercury” is a standard measurement that expresses the difference between ambient atmospheric pressure and the pressure that’s being created by your vacuum. At 25 inches, you can pull a tap from a tree and the vacuum roars. If the sap’s running, it’ll arc from the hole and into the spout. Stick the spout to the end of your finger and it bites a bit. But it’s work to get to those levels. Sugarmakers who work on a commercial scale leave their lines up all year, and squirrel chews and fallen-tree-limb damage and cracks from aging infrastructure all degrade the system. Once we’re tapped, the vacuum level is usually around 10 to 15 inches; we then have to go back, line by line, over the whole system to get it tight. What’s the payoff? Sugarmakers throw around the statistic that every inch of mercury equals 5 percent more sap. I think the reality is more nuanced than that simple statistic, but it gives you an idea of why someone would let the first sap of the year run on the ground and work on lines instead. It’s a short-term loss that is, in theory, overcome by long-term gain. 

Turning from the practical to the poetic, there’s something endearing about this year’s deep snow if you can overlook the loss of efficiency. On low-snow years, you navigate the woods haphazardly, following the straightest line from point a to point b. But on years like this, you create snowshoe-packed highways that are essentially a road system through the woods. Little snow-rooms develop where you’ve beaten down a whole area – these places are where you cache equipment or break for lunch. The animals who are out use the paths, too. Each morning you’ll see fresh deer tracks, or coyote or fox tracks, along your highways. Last Tuesday, a raccoon made its way out of a big maple cavity tree and meandered the trail system.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part I

Because it’s so intensely seasonal and labor intensive, sugarmaking has always been something of an economic side-gig. In the vertically-integrated family-farm days, maple was the first crop of the year, the literal seed money for the seed that went into the ground in May. No one was just a sugarmaker, because collecting buckets is so labor intensive that it kept operations small. The old axiom was that one adult could run 500 buckets, which is to say hang them, collect them, boil that amount of sap. 

This all started to change in the mid twentieth century with the advent of maple tubing that allowed sap to just run down hill into one collection tank. But the revolution didn’t happen overnight. The image here shows a patent for early plastic tubing, filed in 1956.

A modern producer would look at this setup with tubing running along the contours of the ground and think ugh, imagining mold, squirrel and mouse chews, ice blockages. Tubing systems and installation techniques improved rapidly, but even in the 1980s, when I was a boy, rudimentary soft plastic tubing drooped from tree to tree.

Today things are very different, and people around the state are hell bent on proving that sugaring can be an occupation in its own right.  Modern producers use semi-rigid, food-grade plastic that’s designed to be pliable enough to work with but rigid enough to hold a straight line downhill. We have fittings that allow proper tensioning, and vacuum systems that woosh the sap downhill to the tank. Reverse osmosis machines can turn 1,000 gallons of sap into a 100 gallons of concentrate with the push of a button. In theory, with the proper setup, one adult can run thousands of taps. Rumor has it there’s an operation somewhere in northern Vermont where one guy’s running 10,000 taps by himself. 

But for most people, this isn’t going to work. Technological promise is one thing, technological execution is another. Pretending you can buy enough gadgets to allow you to run 10,000 taps alone is like pretending you can seamlessly transition from in-person to remote learning in a school with enough Microsoft and Apple products. It sounds good on a slick video, but on the ground there are endemic roadblocks that technology just can’t solve, like the fact that a lot of people in Vermont still can’t get high-speed internet (he writes bitterly while staring at the blinking modem on his pathetic wireless system).

I’m thinking about the how-many-taps-can-a-person-run-alone question because that’s what I’m up against this year. The extended family chips in every sugaring season, but the main drivers are my father and I, and Dad’s laid up with a bum leg. I’ve started tapping our 3,500 trees, but I’m trying hard to keep my expectations realistic as to what comes next. 

The big roadblock thus far has been deep snow – knee deep in one bush, between knee-and-thigh deep in the other. The hovercrafts that might eventually glide us from tree to tree have yet to be invented, so I’m stuck with snowshoes, grit, and help from dear friends and family. Four other adults and two teenagers helped out last weekend, and we’re about 60 percent in. The weather will be conducive for sap later this week, so I’m off to keep up the battle. I’ll aim to post dispatches regularly every Monday for the rest of the season.