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Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 2

Year two of the garden project started with a decision: was I going to keep using a tractor to work the earth? 

Like many of you, I grew up thinking that you needed to deeply till the soil to grow things in it. As a boy, I remember being beat up by the family roto-tiller, the thing pitching me around like a bull as I tried to hang on to it. In my twenties I worked on a vegetable farm, and we basically used the same techniques as we used in the home garden, just with better equipment. Every spring, we broke the earth with a three-bottom plow. We then disked, then spread manure, then used a tractor-mounted tiller to make fluffy beds. The soil was so soft and loose when you were done that you wanted to lay down and take a nap in it. 

Of course the downside to soft, loose dirt is that there’s no structure anymore, which leaves the soil vulnerable. Without a plant layer to act as a roof, topsoil can dry out and blow away, rain water gushes in instead of trickling in, ecosystems full of mycorrhizae and microbes and insect life get all smashed up. A no-till farming/gardening advocate would tell you that the plow is a pariah, and best practice involves keeping dirt as green as possible for as long as possible, then work only the top few inches of soil, leaving the subsoil as intact as possible. 

We want to dig deeply into the topic of soil in Volume II of the Almanac, talk to some growers with different perspectives on best practice and report what we hear. My sense is that it’s not a case of right or wrong, it’s a matter of scale, technique, available resources, and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make.  

In the meantime, where it comes to this garden, I decided to pursue a modified no-dig approach. Instead of plowing and disking this year, I simply scratched the soil surface with a York rake to break up the dead buckwheat litter. I blew my budget by investing $100 in a broadfork – basically a pitchfork on steroids that lifts compacted soil. And I borrowed a twist tiller, which is a tool you plunge into the earth and twist to break up a planting bed. If the hand tools work, I’ll be able to recoup much of the cost by selling the old roto-tiller that sits in my garage.

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 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 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.

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.

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.

In Sync

In our Nature Notes section in January, Volume I, we included a picture of blood in coyote urine that was taken last January 23. Here’s a picture we took this year, on January 25, of the same thing. The blood is an indication that the endometrial lining in the female’s uterus is developing, and she’ll soon go into heat.

It’s not surprising that a coyote’s reproductive cycle, which takes its cue from the amount of sunlight in the day, is so regular year in and year out. After all, there’s a sweet spot when puppies should be conceived and then subsequently born. If they’re born too early, they risk dying from the cold right away. If they’re born too late, they risk going into next winter undersized and dying then. Thousands of years of evolution have helped determine the sweet spot, though it’ll be interesting to see how the changing climate affects things going forward.

 

Peace

We haven’t done a great job keeping the webpage up to date recently – our apologies for that. Part of my issue has been a long stretch of relatively warm and consistent weather that’s kept me away from a computer. Daytime highs came in between 29 and 39 degrees on every day between December 27 and January 22 in southwestern Vermont; this, coupled with low snow depths, made working in the woods irresistible. 

While the temperatures have been unseasonable, it hasn’t been worrisomely warm. As a sugarmaker, I’m always conscious of the maple trees in winter, hoping they have a proper period of dormancy before the sugaring season, worried about the root damage that’s a possibility in winter when there’s not an insulating snowpack. Where I live anyway, the temps seemed to have stayed on the good side of warm, which is to say the sap mostly stayed in the roots, and my guess is that the duff layer and minor snow depth kept the frost from burrowing deep in the ground. 

From a work perspective, it’s been a guilty pleasure. In late December, brothers Keith and Justin Severance came down to deliver a 4,000-gallon sugaring tank we bought from Reg Charbonneau, and we got it moved in to place relatively easily with some prybars and Yankee ingenuity. 

Over the last month I’ve been able to rebuild a major section of mainline in one of our sugarbushes, working without gloves or snowshoes. The plastic tubing doesn’t handle well in frigid temperatures, as you can imagine, but high-30s leaves it reasonably pliable. 

Whenever you rebuild you get a chance to do things better, and part of that often means thinning the forest. With the lines down I cut some ash that is likely going to die soon anyway from the emerald ash borer and become a line hazard. We’ll burn this wood next winter. There was enough frost in the ground to drag some logs across a wet area, but it was warm enough that I didn’t have to fight anything.

The weather started to change last week, when the snow came properly. We got about 3 inches out of the slush storm last weekend, but a lake effect conveyer has been dumping cold powder on top of it almost every day since – we’re probably up to a solid 12 inches in the valley, and up on the hills, where the first storm was all snow, depths are being measured in feet. I tried pulling the last few logs out over the wet spot yesterday, and promptly buried the tractor to its axle. Canadian air brought deep cold in last night, and when I tried starting a UTV to break a trail up the hill to the back reaches of the sugarbush, the ignition was frozen. Everything just gets fragile and miserable with the snow and cold. 

That’s alright – it’s good, even. Ecologists are always talking about how plants and animals need a period of winter dormancy, but the same can be said for people. There’s always such a rush in fall to get things ready for winter, and if winter doesn’t come properly, it’s easy to just not stop working. Here’s to peace and the chance to catch up on the things in our hearts and in our heads.