End of a Sugar Rush
Paul Messer points to the location of his first sugarhouse while standing in the family’s current sugarhouse in Orford on Friday. Messer and his wife Betty have scaled down their maple syrup production business. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Grades of maple syrup line the window at the Messer sugarhouse in Orford, N.H., on April 4, 2014. Syrup from 2013 is on the left and 2012's is on the right. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Paul and Betty Messer at their sugarhouse in Orford, N.H., on April 4, 2014. The couple has scaled down their sugaring operation. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Orford — Betty and Paul Messer: You’ve dialed back your maple-sugaring habit from an all-out commercial operation to what Betty calls “a backyard thing.” How are you going to spend your winters and mud seasons now?
Escaping for a week or two in Florida? Arizona? The Caribbean?
“Arizona wouldn’t be bad for a few days — nice and dry in the desert,” Paul allowed on a frosty Friday morning at their Sunday Mountain Maple Sugar Farm, until Betty winced as if smelling sap burning in an old boiling pan.
“We’ll go to visit other sugarhouses,” she declared.
Yes, they’ve given up 90 percent of the leases on nearby land where they’d tapped more than 3,000 trees with miles of plastic tubing through last season — their best in 50-plus years at 750 gallons.
The Messers, however, are keeping a toe in the life. From the sap they coax f rom 170 or so taps on maples around their home off Route 25A, they’ll continue to make maple candy, maple sugar and maple creams.
And they’ll continue to sell them to visitors from near and far at the snug, low-slung sugar house that one of their loyal customers from away likes to call their museum .
“I really enjoy not only their syrup,” George Mahowald said on Friday from his home in Northborough, Mass., “but how it’s made.”
And how the Messers remind customers how it was made: Surrounding the shiny, oil-fired evaporator that the Messers installed three years ago — and that they’re now seeking a buyer for — are memorabilia ranging from old buckets of galvanized metal and ancient sugar-molds of wood to the kinds of snowshoes and sleds and kid-size bucket-carrying yokes with which families like the Messers used to trek into the woods to collect the raw material for this delicacy of the North.
“Sugarmakers are always collectors,” Paul said with a smile.
The first time Mahowald visited Sunday Mountain one mud season five or six years ago, he knew as soon as he saw the place and bought a case of syrup what he would be giving the corporate clients of his credit-card processing firm from then on.
“I found it was the perfect gift,” Mahowald said. “Everybody gives a Starbucks gift card or something. This is much more original. People in Colorado are used to having pancakes with Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin.”
Heaven knows what they were putting on their pancakes or waffles in New Zealand before a visiting yacht builder ordered 50 half-pints for shipment to a forester friend in that island nation on the other side of the world ...
“It’s too expensive to send UPS — something like four times the value of the syrup,” Paul recalled. “It came down to the U.S. Postal Service: Fast boat or slow boat?”
And how would the recipient pay, given that the Messers don’t take credit cards? “I told him, ‘The bill will be in the package,’” Betty said.
The Messer way of making and sharing syrup and its history began in the mid-1950s, when Paul, who had grown up in an orphanage in West Franklin, N.H., and then moved to Orford to live with a foster family, joined the Future Farmers of America at Orford High. He made his first syrup in 1956, and after marrying Orford-native Betty in the late 1950s, he did it on the side while working other jobs, including a 23-year career with the Hanover Police Department.
The Messers and their five children dove deeper into the sugaring life when they moved to their current property in 1973. Come the late 1970s, they switched to gathering sap with tubing.
“We had kept adding taps,” Betty recalled. “We had up to 800 buckets. That was hard work. And you spilled half of it before you could get it out of the woods.”
Finally, they went full time into making syrup and cultivating repeat customers in the late 1980s, after Paul retired from the police department.
By the turn of the millennium, Betty would leave her job in the Hanover Town Clerk’s Office to handle the rising tide of orders and shipments.
All this without expanding the tiny parking area off their dirt driveway.
“We’ve shied away from the big tours, big buses,” Paul said.
“Because you can’t do the one-on-one,” Betty said.
“The problem with tour buses is, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ ” Paul said
That ambassadorial side of the business, the Messers are happy to keep handling. Now in their mid-70s, they’re finding it harder to find enough regular workers — three to six in season — to help with setting up and maintaining the tubing, with collecting the sap, and, even with modern equipment in the sugar house, keeping it clean and keeping it running up to their standards.
“You get overwhelmed with the work,” Paul said. “Christmas orders are really big. It’s a tremendous amount of labor to pack and ship. It’s not an easy thing.”
“All day long on the computer,” Betty said, with Paul concluding, “Time to do something else, I guess.”
They were already thinking about something else — or at least something less — during the 2012 season.
“That 80-degree weather in March,” Paul remembered with a shake of the head. “The trees said, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’”
The Messers harvested enough quality over quantity that year to win a second Carlisle Award from the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association for their light amber in 2013. And then came those 750 gallons in 2013.
“We had first boil March 1, then we froze up for the next 14 days,” Paul said. “But we had a great year.”
To which Betty added, “We figured this way it was, ‘Boy, you stepped out in the right place.’”
Right place, at the wrong time for George Mahowald. In late March, after encouraging the organizers of a camp for home-schooled students in Fairlee to bring a busload of campers to Sunday Mountain, he learned of the Messers’ downsizing.
“I quickly called up Betty,” he said, “and ordered one more case.”
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 603-727-3304.