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Sugarmakers get a flow of maple sap just in time to welcome visitors

  • While visiting the area over the weekend to ski and tour the farm, Emmy Williams, 11, of Boston, right, reacts to the smell of boiling sap while touring Sugarbush Farm's sugarhouse with her mother Shauna and friend Annie Wagner, 10, also of Boston, in Woodstock, Vt., during Vermont Maple Open House Weekend on March 24, 2019. At left is Jeff Luce, of Woodstock, who works with his parents and brother at Sugarbush Farm. Luce said he's been sugaring his whole life on the farm, established in 1945 by his grandparents. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Visitors enter and leave the sugarhouse at Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock, Vt., during Vermont Maple Open House Weekend on March 24, 2019. Over the weekend nearly 125 sugarmakers across Vermont opened their sugarhouse doors to give those who were curious a look at how maple syrup is made. Sunday was the fourth day Sugarbush Farm had boiled this season. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kathy McHugh, of Boston, asks Matt Luce, of Sharon, Vt., a question while Luce uses a hydrometer to measure the thickness of nearly-finished maple syrup at Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock, Vt., during Vermont Maple Open House Weekend on March 24, 2019. McHugh and her husband Jim boil sap with neighbors at their weekend home in Bridgewater, Vt., producing about 16 gallons of syrup from 127 buckets, and brought guests to Sugarbush Farm because their sap was not running yet. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Push pins across Europe show where visitors to Sugarbush Farm's sugarhouse have come from during Vermont Maple Open House Weekend in Woodstock, Vt., on March 24, 2019. Several places on the maps have worn away due to the number of pin pricks. Maple syrup made at the farm, established in 1945, is sold on-site and online. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, March 24, 2019

POMFRET — For each three-foot slab of dry hardwood that Ralph Luce slung into the firebox on Sunday morning, his son Jake was pulling out and stacking two more from the 12-cord massif waiting in the adjoining shed at Sugarbush Farm.

And the Luces, along with the family’s steaming evaporator, were just warming to the second day of Maple Open House Weekend — while cars bearing license plates from all the New England states as well as New York, New Jersey and Virginia streamed into the farm’s parking lot in the hills high above Pomfret and Woodstock.

“Yesterday, the sap flowed excellent, and we were finally able to really get it going after a very long winter,” Ralph Luce said during a brief break from stoking, stirring and answering visitors’ questions. “I called Jake (at New England College in Henniker, N.H., where he’s a junior) yesterday and said, ‘We really could use your help.’ ”

It was all hands on deck at sugarhouses small, medium and large around the Upper Valley and the Twin States, where until mid-March the sap was running too slowly, if at all, for most operations to justify the all-out effort of firing up the infrastructure.

“Last weekend was our first time boiling,” Nancy Doten said while her husband, Jim, stoked and fine-tuned the evaporator at Elm Grove Farm on Cloudland Road in Pomfret, a couple of ridges and valleys west of Sugarbush. “I think we got 15½ gallons the first day, did pretty well on Thursday (the first full day of spring) and then yesterday it really started taking off.”

Well, taking off relative to 2018, when enough sap ran from Elm Grove’s 1,000 taps for the Dotens — Jim, his brother Mike, their three siblings and their spouses and assorted extended family and friends and neighbors — to boil and bottle some 300 gallons, well above their seasonal average of about 200.

Even if this weekend’s output continues, the Dotens aren’t ready to count their chickens — or their bottles filled

“This year is projecting to be well under our average,” Mike Doten said. “It is what it is.”

Over in West Woodstock, Don Bourdon and his operations manager, Meg Emmons, are counting on Bourdon Maple Farm’s 10,000 taps, in a sugarbush ranging across 150 acres, to yield somewhere close to the seasonal average of around 5,000 gallons.

“The weather worked just perfect for this weekend,” said Emmons, a 2011 graduate of Woodstock Union High School who runs her own gardening business in spring and summer and works part time on her family’s farm in Pomfret. “We’re really lucky. The sap ran pretty well last night, and it kept going this morning. We also saved up quite a bit of sap from earlier runs this season, just to make sure.

“All you can do is be ready.”

To offset unpredictable weather and other factors — among them coyotes nibbling on tubing brought low by downed branches — Bourdon a couple of years ago invested in a system of solar-powered sensors that monitor the flow out of the trees and show the results on a computer screen in the sugarhouse.

“The industry is moving more toward the tech side,” Bourdon said. “The emphasis is on improving the production of each tree, and keeping the trees healthy. Maple is a growth industry in Vermont and New England. Over the last eight to 10 years, the volume in Vermont has doubled to about two million gallons statewide” out of a nationwide total of a little more than four million.

And the process itself keeps visitors coming from around the country and the world.

At Sugarbush, the Luces counted more than 500 people filing through the sugarhouse and the gift shop on Saturday, while Elm Grove welcomed 170 and Emmons estimated some 200 at Bourdon Farm.

In all, Don Bourdon said, 114 Vermont maple producers opened their operations this weekend, up from 91 in 2018.

After driving over from their home in east Pennsylvania’s Berks County on Friday, and exploring three sugarhouses in northern Vermont on Saturday, Daryl and Dawn Horning visited both Sugarbush and Bourdon on Sunday.

“It’s amazing to see,” Daryl Horning said at Bourdon Farm. “We have 13 or so taps on 17 trees, and we collect the sap on foot, in five-gallon buckets.

“It’s going to stay a hobby for us.”

Newport residents Steve and Jill McKenney, who ventured to Sugarbush for the first time after decades of visiting sugarhouses in New Hampshire, also are happy to leave it to the professionals.

“They do this in such a short period of time, and there are so many variables they have to allow for,” Steve said. “People don’t appreciate the amount of work that goes into this.

“It’s not like you just come in and flip the switch.”

And until further notice, the McKenneys would rather inhale the sweet steam that comes from those evaporators than wait out winter and mud season as snowbirds in Florida or the Southwest.

“I would be no place else this time of year,” Steve McKenney said. “This is why I love it here.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

Correction

The Doten family makes maple syrup at Elm   Grove Farm in Pomfret. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the farm.