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.

At the Log Yard

Paid a visit to Allard Lumber’s Pawlet log yard today to visit with Dan Wood, who’s a log buyer there. We talked about log prices, Chinese markets, and the art of log grading. It was fun to watch the men scale a load. Logs were lifted off the truck and both sides were displayed to the graders to be judged for defects. The logs were then measured and graded – a process i’ll tell you all about in the story i’m writing for Volume II. 

I asked Wood how long it takes to get good at this, and he said that if you’re smart, he can teach you 80% of what you need to know in a weekend. As for the other 20%, it takes a lifetime. He’s been in some facet of the log business since 1977 and he still sees some things that surprise him.

Cached ear-corn in a fold of maple bark, at least 3/4 of a mile from the nearest possible source of corn. Could be a nuthatch, which has a habit of caching seeds in crevices then hacking them open.

Saw Starting Instructions by Bill Torrey

We got this note today from Bill:

A good friend is having trouble starting his saw. I sent him some instructions on how to proceed. I thought you might want to write this down for future reference. They are as follows:

I’ll tell you how to start it, but don’t let this get around. First, you must appease the chainsaw gods. Take the top left tooth from a young female beaver killed under the light of a full moon, and needles from a hemlock browsed by at least an 8-point buck. In an old work boot, use them to brew a tea made from stump water from a red oak that grew on a north facing slope. A white oak can be substituted, but it should be of at least 24” in girth. While standing over the offending saw, take a played-out 7/32 saw file, stir in 5 drops of 10 wt. bar and chain oil while chanting three times, “Start you motherf*****!” Leave the file in the boot while holding one end against your temple and slug down the contents as quickly as possible through clenched teeth so as to strain out the beaver tooth and hemlock needles. You’ll need these later. Contact me when you’ve got this part done, and I’ll tell you how to proceed to the more involved second phase.  – Raker Bill

On the Landing

Ed Legacy’s log landing at the base of Maple Hill. He keeps a woodstove in the little warming shack running during the day – “it’s always between 80 and 120 inside he says with a smile.” At the mill this wood is going to, the prices being paid for ash, red maple, and hard maple are up between 10 and 20 percent compared to last year at this time. 

Hopeful Numbers

The Vermont legislature asked the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to create an agriculture plan — basically a vision for what agriculture in the state could be in 2030. The plan was released today. It’s interesting, albeit very wonky, reading — see it here.

The thing that immediately jumps out are these hopeful numbers that detail growth in Vermont’s agricultural sector over the last decade:

Vermont’s food system economic output expanded 48%, from $7.5 billion to $11.3 billion, which includes $3 billion (26.5%) from food manufacturing.

The food system added 6,560 net new jobs (11.3% increase).

More than 64,000 Vermonters were directly employed by over 11,500 farms and food-related businesses.

Local food purchases rose from $114 million (5%) to $310 million (13.9%) of the total $2.2 billion spent on food in the state annually.

Vermont farms sold $781 million worth of products in 2017.

Barred owls make noise all night long but they feed most actively at dawn and dusk; sometimes well after dawn and well before dusk.

Blissfully Normal

The weather in the Valley of Vermont was quiet from the day after Christmas through the first week of January. Each day was largely dry, largely cloudy, largely the same. Daytime highs averaged 35 degrees, nighttime lows 21.

Then winter proper descended, and for the next 30 days it felt like what you’d think it ought to feel like in southern Vermont. Daytime highs averaged 28, nighttime lows averaged 12. There were only 6 days where it hit 32, and none reached 40. Each night was sub-freezing, and 6 of them were sub-zero. Snow’s been steadily accumulating and not going anywhere.

There’s nothing remarkable about those thoroughly average averages, but that’s the point. The previous two months both came in well above the long-term average. Last January, as documented in Volume I of the Almanac, featured record-breaking warmth, with temperatures soaring into the 60s and setting all-time record highs. That the January weather has returned to form to start 2021 is much welcome.