The road to Buck Family Maple Farm in Washington had turned soft and muddy in Wednesday’s 50-degree weather, making any car slip around, regardless of its tires. The warm spell had also spurred sap to start flowing, and inside his sugarhouse, John Buck was prepping for a Sunday boil, clearing snow and tending to the woods.
Extreme temperature swings have become the new normal for maple sugarmakers, who have had to adjust in the past decade to the increase in severe weather and varying temperatures.
“The standard has become, be ready in February. Don’t get ready in February. Be ready,” Buck said. “You know, the old farmer’s almanac kind of calendar would say … be ready by Town Meeting Day.” Now, he continued, “you will have missed a run or two if you wait till Town Meeting Day.”
One of Buck’s 2,000-gallon holding tanks was half full on Thursday, with sap still running in.
Though he was pleased with the flow, the increase in extreme weather, especially extreme cold and ice storms, is worrying for maple sugarers. Damage to maple trees can affect sap production. Maple trees take 80 years to be mature enough for tapping, and that’s just the minimum. If a 150-year-old sugar maple is knocked out in a storm, that quality sap is gone in a day.
Buck noted that a couple of his trees were damaged in an ice storm last Memorial Day weekend. Ice storms can break branches and put stress on the wood, causing deformities.
Buck worked as a wildlife biologist for 39 years, and it shows in the way he manages his farm, which, he noted, is certified organic and bird-friendly.
“It might be intuitive that when you’re managing the forest that you favor sugar maple trees … but by doing so you’re trending your way into a monoculture. You’re ignoring the value of the other species that are out there,” Buck said.
For Buck, sugaring is a labor of love and family pastime. His son, James, is frequently around helping out with the operation.
“Now some sugarmakers, this is their livelihood. So their entire income is based on maple syrup and is probably a little different perspective. But I think fun still has to be part of that equation. Because it’s really hard work. And it’s year-round work, too. So that’s something that I think people are surprised to hear,” Buck said.
The Buck Family Farm sells syrup on its website as well as in bulk to distributors and local public schools.
Maple sugar fever
All across Vermont, sugarmakers are adapting their craft to shifting weather and climate change.
This year marks the earliest boil for Lew and Audrey Coty, owners of the Nebraska Knoll Sugar Farm. In 2017, they boiled on Feb. 20, but Thursday’s boil beat that record. They have about 9,700 taps on 240 acres of land.
The aroma of boiling sap filled the sugar shack. Christian Theberge, who has helped the Cotys for 10 years, tended to the syrup pan, where the sweet, sticky liquid comes out.
The Cotys bought their land back in 1976, cleared it and built all the buildings they now use for sugaring.
Audrey, who grew up in Williston, has been sugaring ever since she tapped 10 or so trees in her yard as a kid. It’s hard work, but for Audrey it’s a necessary part of her life.
“Got the fever,” she said. “Means it’s a disease. Incurable.”
Lew, a carpenter who grew up in Stowe, didn’t catch the sugaring “disease” until later in life.
“I couldn’t help it. It has a very romantic appeal. The magic of being able to produce a gourmet product from a wild weed is pretty magical. We’re reaping what we didn’t sow, but we pay for it in other ways,” Lew said.
For Lew, the most challenging part of maple sugaring is the uncertainty. Scheduling people to help with the operation is difficult when the weather is unpredictable. In the past, sap would frequently freeze overnight, managing the flow of sap into holding tanks, but with night temperatures staying warm, the sap just keeps running.
Lew credits two technological advances for keeping maple sugaring alive: reverse osmosis machines and tap lines, especially with the weather becoming even more unpredictable.
Both the Coty and Buck operations use reverse osmosis machines to remove about 80% or more of the water from the sap. The sugar content starts at about 2% in raw sap and after the osmosis process can be at about 15% depending on how many times the sap is run through. This cuts down greatly on the time and resources it would take for sap to boil into syrup in an evaporator.
The Nebraska Knoll Farm has a shop attached to their sugar shack for visitors to come buy their product and see the operation.
“Sugaring is a roller coaster from total discouragement to utter euphoria. Seems to go from one extreme to another,” Lew said.
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