On and On it Goes
April 14, 2014 § 12 Comments
We did a little boil this weekend, adding to our syrup stores by another gallon-and-a-half or so. Rye’s trees ran pretty good on Friday, so he boiled too, the results of which pushed him over last year’s final tally of ½-gallon. The pleasure of this imbued him with a sense of magnanimity, and he donated his extra sap to our rig.
We’re up to four-gallons or so of finished syrup; it’s a fraction of last year’s haul (12-gallons), but it’s better than I feared, and it’s not over yet, though it will be soon. Before long, the trees will start budding, and once they start budding, the sap takes on a bitterness that translates into “buddy” syrup. The big sugar makers sell buddy syrup into the commercial flavoring market, so they keep boiling, but we are decidedly not big sugar makers. Hell, we might not even be small sugar makers.
On Friday, as part of my reporting for a story I’m working on, I visited one of the largest sugaring operations in the state. They’ve got 66,000 taps, spread across something like 2,000 acres, and it’s a full-time, year-round job keeping the whole shootin’ match running. The scale was mind-boggling to me; I spent most of the day riding in one of those little off-road utility vehicles, bouncing around the woods with a woman named Cecile who at 56 moved a good bit faster and seemed a good bit stronger than most guys half her age.
An operation like Cecile’s and Tommy’s (her husband) depends on high vacuum; that is, it depends on vacuum pumps to keep the sap flowing even under less-than-ideal conditions. The key with vacuum is that you’ve gotta find and fix any leaks to the system – a tap that’s pulled out of a tree, for instance, because a branch has fallen on the line, or a deer chew, or whatever. A single leak across all those thousands of miles of pipeline has a measurable impact on production. So every day, Cecile and a crew of another half-dozen or so family members and employees run the lines from sunup to sundown, looking for leaks. They own an entire fleet of ATVs and utility buggies for precisely this purpose.
Later that afternoon, I took a ride with Tommy in a big hauling truck to pick up 4,000-gallons of concentrate at their remote bush, about 15-miles from the sugarhouse. Concentrate is the term for sap that’s been run through a reverse osmosis machine, thus increasing the sugar content. Raw sap is generally in the 2% range; with an RO, sugar makers can take it to 18% or even a little higher, thus reducing the boiling time (and therefore, the fuel necessary to make sap into syrup).
On the ride home, I asked Tommy (who like his wife seems to have more energy and depth of character than most folks half his age) if he every missed the old days; they used to sugar with horses and buckets and boil over old wood-fired arches. He grinned. “I used to tell myself I’d never have pipeline, I’d never give up the horses, I’d never use vacuum, and I’d never be boiling with oil,” he told me. “Now look at me.”
Tommy struck me as a pragmatic guy. He didn’t seem sad or bitter about the changes. It’s just the way things are. In a way, I couldn’t help but admire him for this. He’s not caught in his nostalgia. He’s got those memories, he knows what it used to be, and he liked it then. But he also knows what it is now, and he knows what he needs to do to make it pencil out. He’s got bills to pay. He’s got his children’s future to think about. Horses and buckets don’t pay the bills. Horses and bucket’s don’t leave something for your kids except maybe memories.
Me, I think I’d get stuck in nostalgia. I’d be mired right to the tops of my boots in the way it used to be, while all around me folks who weren’t so damn stupid were buzzing around on ATV’s and checking vacuum. The crazy thing is, Tommy and Cecile told me about a Canadian outfit that’s rumored to be putting in a 500,000-tap operation somewhere in the Northeast Kingdom. If rumors become fact, pretty soon their 66,000-tap maple business won’t seem so big anymore. Pretty soon, it’ll just be the way things used to be.
On and on it goes.