April, Part 3

The “drip, drip, drip” of sap landing in a bucket isn’t a sound that’s heard much in Vermont anymore. Most commercial sugarmakers rely exclusively on tubing to silently transport sap downhill to a tank or the sugarhouse. But even if buckets were still the go-to collection method, sugarbushes in the state would have been quieter than normal this year — the “drips” fewer and further apart. 

The sugaring season wrapped up in mid-April, and sugarmakers around the state are generally reporting a down year. Mark Isselhardt, maple specialist with UVM Extension, cautions that “normal” is a relative term in sugarmaking, as every year there can be wide variances in production between sugarmakers in different parts of the state, and even within local microclimates. But based on reports he’s received from sugarmakers around the state, Isselhardt estimates that most producers made about 25-35 percent less syrup than normal.

Mary McCuaig’s family has been making syrup at Top Acres Farm in South Woodstock since the 1920s. The fourth-generation sugarmaker said that the sugar content of sap this year was lower than it usually is, which means that it took more sap to make each gallon of syrup. (In an informal survey done by UVM extension, 72 percent of respondents reported a similarly low sugar content.) McCuaig added that by the time the sap really started flowing after a cold start, the syrup being produced was dark and the season was over. The good news, she told us, is that thanks to high-tech spouts, improved tubing lines, and a vacuum system, Top Acres Farm was able to limit the losses; it made about 82 percent of the crop that it has averaged over the past 10 years.

For consumers, the news is not at all dire. “I definitely think there will be plenty of syrup around,” UVM Extension’s Mark Isselhardt told us. But he adds that for individual sugarmakers, especially those who have recently made significant investments in equipment and technology, the loss of income from having less syrup to sell may be dramatic. A reminder that in April, as in all months, agriculture in Vermont is subject to the ever-unpredictable nature of weather.

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.” 







Vermont Almanac on WCAX

Dave Mance and Patrick White appeared on WCAX on July 13 to talk about Vermont Almanac. Our thanks to host Céline McArthur–the conversation was a great opportunity to introduce our new annual book about life in rural Vermont to an audience around the state. Here’s a link in case you missed it, here’s a link to the WCAX segment.


The Year of the Earwig

According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. That sounds about right, so far. But at least in our old farmhouse, it’s the Year of the Earwig. We’ve been inundated with them the last few weeks, the way we are at other times of the year with house flies and lady bugs. But rather than simply being a nuisance, earwigs have a disgusting factor to them. Sort of the country version of cockroaches. And right now they’re everywhere: on the bathroom floor, on the kitchen counters, on our toothbrushes. The name “earwig” has an even more disgusting, though mythical, origin: the folklore that these insects would crawl, or wiggle, into your ear to lay their eggs.

At the moment, our earwig population seems to be multiplying exponentially. Which, after doing a little research, I now realize isn’t far from the truth. Female earwigs lay as many as 60 “round, pearly” eggs in shallow soil, and the insects reach the adult stage in about 70 days. It also turns out that earwigs prefer hot, humid environments—so the recent weather has been perfect for them, and perhaps that’s why they’re so plentiful and active this year. “In their search for food and shelter, earwigs crawl over the ground and readily climb houses, fences and trees,” according to UVM Extension’s website. “They forage at night and hide during the day in cracks, hollow stalks of leaf whorls of plants, tubular lawn furniture, and hollow aluminum doors, and under the husks of corn cobs. Their invasion of houses begins sometime in July.” I can confirm that invasion has begun.

Every piece of firewood in the pile seems to cover a colony of earwigs.

We haven’t resorted to traps, and putting insecticide on our toothbrushes seems unwise. So we’re left to manually exterminate them, one at a time. The truth is that, despite the menacing looking pincers on their abdomens, beyond the possibility of a pinch, earwigs don’t pose much of a threat to humans. Gardeners, however, may feel differently—the damage that earwigs do to plants like lettuce, beans, and even raspberries can be severe. We’ve definitely found that there’s no escape outdoors at the moment; we’re stacking firewood right now and each piece in the pile seems to be covering an entire earwig colony.  Though I doubt they are eating too much of our wood.

The good news is that earwigs only live one year, with many dying during the winter. So by the time the Year of the Ox comes around, this batch will be no longer with us. Hopefully they disappear from our house long before that.

The White Pine Removal Project

We’d been talking about and putting off the “White Pine Removal Project” long enough that it earned an official name. It was clear for years that this was something we needed to do.

The six massive white pines around our lawn were encroaching on our house and leaning precariously out over our barn, covering everything in shade and needles – and pitch. Branches (the 4-inch-in-diameter kind) were constantly breaking off in the slightest breeze or lightest snow. Actual storms brought down much bigger pieces. But the cost and complexity of the project caused us to push it off, until last week. I wasn’t sure exactly what a tree care company would have charged to do the whole job, but it was clear that we couldn’t afford it. So instead it became a family project, with the help of my brother and some rented equipment.

Decades of growth had produced white pines that dwarfed, and leaned over, our house and barn.

Day 1 began with the simplest of the removals – a 28-inch-diameter pine with a natural lean toward a relatively open area of the lawn. No fuss, no muss, no wedges. We had it on the ground in maybe three minutes. Then began the three-hour process of limbing it up and hauling away all the debris. Our white pines were not the forest-grown kind that European settlers marveled at when they first arrived on this continent –the towering, straight poles prized by the crown. No, ours were so-called “cabbage pines” that form when the trees grow in open areas with lots of sunlight. Each was probably 80 to 90 feet in height, but just as wide and with multiple stems starting 15 or 20 feet up the trunk. In that sense, each tree was really three or four trees. That means we had branches, branches and more branches to deal with. We started making piles in anticipation of renting a large chipper.

Mike White begins the bore cut on white pine #2. White pine #1 can be seen in the background.

The second pine came down nearly as quickly as the first. Wedges, and a 65cc Stihl with a 25-inch bar, helped us drop the 36-inch-diameter monster carefully between an apple tree and a maple. (Unfortunately, that meant landing it on my wife’s perennial garden.) Another several hours of limbing followed. Skipping over the branch-hauling for the moment, we moved on to the third pine. And that’s where our luck ran out. This one was the closest to our house. We hoped to wedge it in our chosen direction, safely away from the structure. But even with six or seven wedges pounded in place, the tree sat back and pinched the saw bar once the trigger wood was cut. An hour of pounding the wedges proved fruitless; they simply compressed the soft wood rather than lifting the tree and toppling it where we wanted it. Around that time, our rented 51-foot-tall man-lift arrived, so we used that to connect a climbing rope as high in the tree as we could reach and ran it to a come-along anchored to another white pine about 125 feet away. The four-ton come-along was able to put significant tension on the pull line, but simply wasn’t large enough to pull the tree over. So we returned to the lift and carefully, piece by piece, took off a major limb of the tree that was growing in the opposite direction. With the last of that counter-weight removed, the come-along was able to do its job and brought the rest of the tree down where we originally intended.

A rental lift let us prune back large limbs growing over the barn.

Day 2 started with sore muscles, and a shift to more precision work in the lift. Using an electric chainsaw and a 59cc Jonsered, both with 16-inch bars, we pruned back the large branches of the pine leaning out over our 200-year-old barn. We tied each section off to a remaining part of the branch so that the cut portion was left hanging from a carabiner; we then lowered each piece by hand with the help of a belay device. In this way, we protected the roof of the barn and those of us working on the ground. Piece by piece, that half of the tree slowly came down. We cleared everything that was hanging out over the barn, but eventually reached a point where the remaining stems were too tall for our lift to safely tackle. Fearing for our barn and our safety, we left the rest of that tree for someone with more expertise, and maybe a crane, to tackle. The remaining hours of daylight were spent with more limbing (using the Jonsered, a 59cc Husqvarna and a 30cc Echo) and brush hauling.

The beginnings of the pulp pile.

On the morning of Day 3 we began to finally cut up the large debranched trees that lay all around our lawn. Before beginning, I had called county forester Dan Singleton, who gave me the names of a few people who might be interested in the wood for pulp. We weren’t looking for any money, I told him, we just wanted to get rid of the wood and hoped there might be a better use than simply piling the logs in our woods. “The pulp market isn’t great right now, especially after the mill exploded in Maine,” he cautioned me. (This dashcam video with plenty of profanity shows the dramatic scene of the mid-April explosion at the Androscoggin Mill, where much of the pulp wood from our part of Vermont had been going.) But I called Tristan Vaughn at Grizzly Mountain Trucking in Groton, Vermont, who told me he would take a load. So we cut the logs to the specs he gave us: 26-inch diameter max down to about 5 or 6 inches, lengths of 8, 12, 16 or 20 feet. The open-grown pine was rarely straight enough to get 16-foot logs, so we focused mostly on 8’s, with 12’s when possible.

We dropped a couple more pines on Day 4, and began moving and stacking all the logs with a rented Cat 259D compact track loader equipped with a large grapple. The machine weighed about 9,000 pounds and could lift almost 3,000 pounds, yet unless a sharp turn was required did almost no damage to our lawn. In the 24 hours we had it, we got pretty quick at picking up the logs and and dropping them where we wanted them. The first log of each tree was often too large in diameter, so those had to be dumped in our woods. Likewise, logs too twisted to be loaded onto a log truck were also dumped, save for five or ten that I aside to burn in my outdoor boiler. But even after dumping at least five cords of wood, we ended up with a stack of about seven cords of pulp, and two saw logs (cut to 16 feet, 6 inches), for Tristan.

After the dust settled, there were seven cords of pulp and two saw logs ready for pick up.

The grapple also sped up the collection of branches. But the chipper we rented refused to start, so those piles will have to be chipped later. Eventually sensing we had piled all that could be chipped in a single day, we next started making a burn pile that quickly became enormous; someday this coming January you might be able to see the fire from space.

Day 5 was lawn (and perennial garden) clean-up; even after four days of work, there were plenty of small branches and needles left to take care of. All told, we spent about $1,200 on rental equipment and delivery. That’s only a fraction of what it would have cost us to hire the job done, as long as we don’t account for our time. Five long days is a lot of sweat equity, so whatever a tree care company might charge is well-deserved. And though we prioritized safety at every step, there’s undeniable danger in this kind of work. We’re fortunate that there were no injuries to people or damage to buildings, and we have some stories to tell.