The Blackfly Hustle

Editor’s Note: Our friend Bill Torrey, up in West Bolton, sent us this dispatch. We told him to send us more.

It would not feel like spring if I weren’t out there hustling to get the wood I skidded during the winter cut up and drying. I say hustle because I want to be done before the blackflies come out heavily and spoil my fun. I’ve seen a few scouts in the last couple days here and had a confirmed kill yesterday.

I’ve logged the woods most my life and have become quite tolerant of bugs gnawing on me. I’ve dealt with swarms of deerflies the size of pelicans and moose flies big enough to blot out the sun. But blackflies have a special place in my heart for caring enough to drive me to work faster. They remind me that spring will soon be summer. There’s a few that have so much of my blood, they send me Father’s Day cards.

Today I put the last of the split wood onto pallets in a wind-row three pallets wide. I still have to bundle up the kindling I sorted out. In September, after a dry spell, I’ll put a tarp over just the top of the pile to where the stacked outside row is to keep the weather off it. As I was getting ready to head back to the barn, I could’ve swore I had a deerfly buzz me.

Mid-May Snow

Folks who live in the Valley of Vermont woke up to 8 inches of snow this morning. Snowfall totals in the mountains will undoubtedly be higher. We’re not sure what the snow and accompanying cold is going to do to the trees, which have tender new leaves on them. Or to the wild animals who are preparing to raise, or are actively raising, their young of the year.

We did a quick scan of weather records to see how unprecedented a snow like this is. In Burlington, there have been only four May snow events of over an inch since they started keeping records in 1892. The deepest was 3.7 inches. Parts of western Massachusetts and central New York got a significant May snowfall like this one on this exact date in 1977, but most of Vermont picked up only a trace to 2 inches in that storm.

Suffice it to say, snowfall totals from this storm will be unprecedented in a lot of southern Vermont towns. The accompanying cold is predicted to break records as well. We’ll watch closely and try to record how it all plays out.

Snow and ice adorn a tender new leaf.

Cooking Wild Turkey

Most people with young children are on full-time childcare duty these days, and so besides figuring out how to get work done, they’re figuring out how to entertain and hopefully educate their kids. My partner and I are in this boat, as is my brother and his wife. And so this week we took the kids out to collect food for a wild feast. The activity checked a lot of boxes, not the least of which was letting us put our energy into something productive and reverential that we might not have had time for pre-COVID.

You can see the remnants of the meal in the picture above. We opened things with shots of chaga-infused vodka. (Jelly jars full of violet-syrup-infused rhubarb juice for the kids.) We then feasted on freshly-procured wild turkey (with trout lily and toothwort garnish), sautéed fiddleheads and nettles, potato leek salad and latkes. For desert with had meringues drizzled with violet syrup and mugs of black birch tea. All in all it was a great success.

I don’t feel like I have any particular expertise to share where it comes to preparing the vegetable, flower, and fungal portions of the meal. If you’re new to foraging, you can find recipes ranging from decent to great online for almost any of this. If you simply substitute leek for onion and blanched nettles for spinach and fiddleheads for asparagus in your go-to dishes, you’ll be fine, too.

I do feel like I have some hard-won knowledge regarding wild turkey, though, which I’ll share. For years I tried, like a lot of people do, to cook it like a domestic bird. But this is the oldest mistake in the book. Some swear by tricks that let you get around this – like flipping the whole bird upside down as you cook it – but they’ve never worked for me. The breast meat is so lean, and the thighs and legs so sinewy and laced with tendons that are bone-hard, that I can’t see a way around treating the cuts separately. If you don’t, you’re going to have cooked breast meat and iron legs, or edible legs with shoe-leather breast meat.

Even when you recognize this, though, you’ve got to be careful. I’ve still had birds end up rubbery after separating and fussing and braising the meat low and slow.

I nailed the turkey in the picture above, and here’s how I did it.

Step one was a brine. My go-to-recipe is 3 quarts of water, ¾ cup kosher salt, 1.5 cups soy sauce, 2 cups brown sugar, 1 cup maple syrup, 3 heads garlic, 2 hands ginger, hot pepper flakes, and whatever herbs I’m feeling in the moment. But feel free to experiment. Heat the brine to a simmer and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Then cool to room temp before submerging and then refrigerating the bird. If you remove the backbone from the carcass, and separate the thigh/leg portions from the breast, you can fit a big tom into a three gallon crock, which will easily fit in a fridge.

When it was time to cook things, I separated the breast meat from the carcass and the legs from the thighs. I drizzled the carcass with oil and put it in the oven to brown for about an hour – I’d use it later for soup. I took the thighs and legs and put them in a large braising pot, then poured the brine in until the meat was just submerged. All this liquid didn’t feel right to me – one of the rules of braising is you don’t want to drown the meat. But I drowned it, just like it was beef stew. I then simmered it for about 3 hours. I then removed the meat, shredded it, and put it in a casserole dish with some schmaltz (chicken fat) I had in the freezer. (To make schmaltz, next time you cook a chicken, render the fat, pour the liquid into a canning jar, and throw it into the freezer.) I then let the shredded turkey meat crisp up in the chicken fat for about 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven. If you’ve ever made pork carnitas, it’s the same technique.

The breast meat I poached, using the same brine bath I cooked the dark meat in. The deal with poaching is that you do not want the liquid to simmer. You want it to be around 160 degrees. It took about an hour to cook. While the breast meat poached, I made a simple pan gravy.

The results were spot on. Crispy chewy dark meat and moist, succulent breast meat. The two textures complimented each other. My brother, having been subjected to rubbery wild turkey over the years, sheepishly brought hot dogs over for the kids, just in case the turkey didn’t come out. They’re still sitting, unopened, in the fridge.

Cookbook author Hank Shaw, who maintains a fabulous online game-meat cooking archive, was the one who inspired me to try these cooking techniques. The original source of my brine recipe has been lost to time.

Man and Machine

When you get up to the tree, your instinct is to grab the trunk with the clam, but if you’re holding it, the saw will bind. You’ve got to cut the tree and then close the clam almost simultaneously. If you’re off, the tree can fall back and land on the machine.

Once the tree’s cut and you’ve got a hold of it, you need to move it to where you want to lay it. Remember in little league when they showed you how to balance the bat in your hand? (He demonstrates.) You need to find the balance point of the tree.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. It takes more brains than balls.

— Greg Haskins

We’re having some logging done this spring, which is not a phrase that an ecologically-sensitive person is supposed to utter. The ground in April is wet, of course, which can lead to ruts and unnecessary soil disturbance. The bark on the growing trees is getting loose, as the sap flows and the trees move into high-gear making leaves; this means that the trees left standing are more vulnerable to injury than they are in winter, when they’re dormant.

And yet technology, and the right logger, is allowing us to push back on this conventional wisdom.

 

The machine in this picture is an 80,000-pound feller buncher. (To put that weight in perspective, the cutting head – just the cutting head – weighs as much as my full-sized pickup.) And yet it’s tracked, so the weight is distributed better than a skidder with four big tires. And as it cuts, it lays down brush and poles where needed to further cushion the ground.

The operator, pictured above, is Greg Haskins, who works for Hunter Excavating in South Londonderry, Vermont. Picture him deftly moving the beast through the forest, reaching out with the boom to cut the marked trees; bear-hugging, balancing, lifting them, then moving them and setting them down in a way and in a place where they won’t disturb the standing trees. You can see from the picture below the work he did. No gashes on any of the crop trees. (This is destined to become part of a sugarbush, if you’re wondering why the crop trees are marginal-looking red maple.) No jagged crowns. Minimal soil disturbance.

People like me – it might be safe to say people like us – tend to distrust technology, especially big, loud, imposing technology. And to be fair, there are applications where you can watch a feller-buncher mow through a forest and get chills. But when they’re used thoughtfully, and wielded skillfully, it’s hard to be nostalgic for the old chainsaw and cable-skidder method, which was crude at best. As I watched Haskins work, I marveled at how fast, and efficient, and clean the work was.

hedgerow firewood

Hedgerow Wood

Hedgerow Wood

I’ve seen a number of “silver lining” commentaries recently. This is not one of them: there isn’t such a thing in the midst of a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands and put tens of millions out of work. This is simply a reminder that, if you’re forced to stay at home, you can be grateful if your home is in rural Vermont. Even in April. Even in an April where it won’t seem to stop snowing. I can’t count the number of times, as we’ve walked our fields and woods recently, that my wife and I have commented on how fortunate we are to not be stuck inside a city high-rise apartment. The time at home has also removed excuses for putting off jobs around our farm. We have an eight-acre field that has been steadily shrinking as the hedgerow around it creeps in. So for the last month, we’ve been cutting it back. And, as a bonus, keeping our outdoor woodstove in business even as our season’s supply of “real” firewood has run out. Hedgerow firewood is an unpredictable amalgamation of sizes and species. We’ve cut 12-inch-diameter cherry and 2-inch beech; white birch and white pine; spruce and striped maple. There are not a ton of BTUs involved, but plenty enough to heat our house and hot water in spring temperatures. More importantly, we’re keeping our field from being choked down and keeping ourselves outdoors.

Last Snow (We Hope)

I remember hearing a story once about a spring snow like the one we woke up to this morning. A farmer had planted a crop – trees, I think; little seedlings – and then a few days later snow covered the field. The farmer panicked, and ran from seedling to seedling with a broom, brushing the snow off. But there were thousands and he could only get to so many. A few weeks later, all the seedlings he’d rushed to save were dead. And the ones that he hadn’t gotten to had recovered, having weathered the cold temperatures beneath the blanket of snow.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 4/13/20

We gathered our first sap on February 24th this year, and our last on April 2nd. Over the course of that 39-day window we weathered some bordering-on-disastrous weather, and some bordering-on-disastrous mechanical issues – namely a vacuum pump that burned up in the middle of a good run. But we persevered and came out ahead in the end. The farm bush generated 26.8 gallons of sap per tap; the Maple Hill bush generated 29.5 gallons per tap, for an average of 28.2. That average is about 6 gallons per tap better than last year, but the amount of syrup we made was essentially the same because of this year’s low sugar content.

All said, we feel tenuously triumphant. Some of the tenuous feeling can be chalked up to the simple fact that this is agriculture, and there’s only so much you can control. This lack of control does different things to different people. It makes some really religious. It makes some really pessimistic – you know the old stereotype of the farmer who complains when things are bad and complains when things are good. It’s because they don’t trust success; because they’ve been hardened by the lean years enough to find little comfort in the good ones.

Part of the tenuous feeling can also be chalked up to the fact that our operation keeps getting bigger, and the bigger you get, the more you have to lose. We’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into equipment and technology that enables us to generated close to 30 gallons of sap per tap, numbers that my grandfather would have found astonishing. He would have been tickled with 15 gallons per tap. But the trade-off, of course, is that you become dependent on the big numbers to support your operating costs. Looking back on the season, I remember a moment of panic when I walked into the pump shed and smelled that acrid metal smell coming from the quiet pump. My first thought was to estimate how long I’d be down, and then calculate the economics of being down. I remember, too, looking at my weather app after a week in mid-March when it barely froze at all, and seeing a 10-day forecast that said another week of 60s and no frost. That forecast was wrong; the pattern they were seeing never came to be and we finished strong. But had it been right, we would have, in all likelihood, been sunk at around 50% of a crop. Back when sugaring was part of a diversified farm operation, the sugarmaker shrugged off the bad years and started planting – hope sprang anew. But when maple is your one crop, you’re uncomfortable with lack of diversity if you have any sense.

I share these worries because I’m trying to give you a deeper sense of things beyond “look at our good per-tap average!” And yet in doing so, I’m being a stereotypical farmer and turning something joyful into something ominous. The bottom line is that we had a good year. Maybe I should have just left it at that.

I’m halfway done with the cleanup, and I’m especially conscious of the trees as I pull taps. They’ve given so much. We’re in the midst of a deep, soaking rain as I write this, and I’m thinking of them. Feeling glad for them.

 

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 3/24/20

As I write this, about 4 inches of fresh snow are glowing bluely in the predawn light.

The season continues for us. The mid-week freeze last week brought a nice color back to the syrup, and the flavor was as good as any we’d made all year. The warmth last Friday definitely took its toll – the sap flow has slowed. But it ran decent this past weekend; it even ran during Monday’s storm. “Sugar snow,” the old-timers called these March runs, when the thermometer hovers around 30°, and big wet snowflakes dapple and droop tree limbs, and defying all physics the sap flows anyway.

We’re at about ¾ of a crop, and it’s taken us 63 gallons of sap to make each gallon so far. As a comparison, last year was 51:1, which is closer to our long-term average. So things this year are significantly less sweet.

Why do trees vary in sugar content from year to year? There are so many variables that no one can say for sure. Two years ago our sugar content also averaged 63:1, and I decided then that it related to a drought in 2016, which produced a stress crop of seeds in 2017, which depleted the tree’s sugar reserves in the spring of 2018. Intuitively this kind of makes sense. You can test the starch reserves in a tree’s root system in the fall, and it’s documented that the reserves vary from year to year based on stress. (Testing of this sort is not standard practice in the industry – it’s mostly done in conjunction with an insect-related defoliating event, as it can give a sugarmaker an idea of tree health before the season so they can make the decision to tap or not.) You can read some work here from Harvard forest where they looked into the relationship between seed years and syrup yields.

We had a heavy seed year last summer, too. So maybe the same thing’s at play again. But I have a new theory this year I’m toying with, and it involves nighttime low temperatures. What we’re noticing, and it’s backed up by another producer I know with a high-vacuum system, is that when you spot check the sugar content of the sap after a hard freeze, it spikes up to 2-plus percent, where it should be. But then as days go by without a freeze, the sap gets progressively less sweet. If we look at the last two weeks, which were the heart of this season, we had a hard freeze (below 25°) on the 8th, followed by 6 nights where it either didn’t freeze or just touched freezing. If froze hard on the nights of the 15th and 16th, recharging the trees, but then it didn’t freeze hard again until the 22nd. So only three out of fourteen nights. When averaged, the low temperatures in that two-week window came out to 30.4°. Last year had consistently lower low temps. Nine of out fourteen nights in the 2-week heart of the season dropped below 25°, and the overall average was 26.7°.

So now I’m wondering if these middling low temps might be a contributing factor to the low sugar content as well. I talked with my friend Mark Isselhardt, the UVM extension maple specialist and a respected maple scientist, and asked his thoughts. He was buying the idea that the lack of hard freezes had an effect. He was skeptical of the seed theory.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 3/17/20

The weather cooperated yesterday – the hard freeze in the morning felt like the sort of freeze you’d get in mid-February. The sap didn’t start running until around noon, which let us catch up a little. We acid washed the pans to remove the scale on the bottom. We canned and moved syrup which had backed up in the finishing pan.

We’re in this weird place, mentally, because the calendar and the cool weather says we should be in the thick of things, but our guts, and much of what we’re seeing outside, say the end is near. Last year we were just getting going in mid-March. But this winter and early spring have been very different. The snow’s gone here. The red maple and popple buds are bordering on breaking. There were reports last week of wood frogs in town. The syrup we’re making is still on flavor, but it’s very dark. The high temperatures forecast for Friday are in the 60s. It feels like early April.

There are always swings in where the season ends from year to year. Last year we ended on 4/7. The year before that on 4/4. The year before that on 4/2. The year before that on 3/26. The year before that on 4/14. The only time in our records that we’ve ever ended in mid-March was 2012, which was a truly bizarre year when late March felt like May.

And so we hold out hope. And we’ll wait and see.