By Bill Moore
Being somewhat of a “newbie” to Vermont, I am still learning things that most take for granted. Having grown up in New England, I do know, for instance, that all of the white stuff out there is not to be taken for granted. It is, in fact, vital to our tourism economy.
The 2017 Benchmark Study on Tourism in Vermont reports that “skiers and riders spend approximately $200 million each year for the use of downhill areas, spend additional millions for the purchase of equipment and spend additional large sums to travel to Vermont and use the hospitality services of the state.” Add in Nordic skiers, snowmobilers, snowshoers, ice fishers and others who enjoy outdoor activities in the winter, and you get a good idea of the importance of the Vermont winter for our economy. It has been a strong season thus far, as winter arrived early, with the first major snow falling in October.
Now, some real magic begins. We have turned the corner. Daylight saving time is officially in place. The vernal equinox will be here next week. Baseball officially begins in two weeks. That can mean only one thing. It’s sugaring time, and this is where my real learning experience began.
First, I had to do some research to understand the basics of the maple syrup industry. This was not an easy task for someone who has been accused of forgetting the science behind making ice cubes.
According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, “There are now four times the number of taps, and double the production per tap, then we had in 2000.” In fact, since 2013, Vermont producers have installed 1.2 million new taps. That helps to explain the phenomenal strength of the industry. Vermont is the nation’s top maple syrup producer, annually generating about 1.8 million gallons.
It quickly became very apparent to me that the simple act of sugaring is not quite so simple. I spoke with two resident experts on the subject, Chamber-members Doug Bragg from Bragg Farm Sugar House, and Burr Morse from Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks. Doug and Burr “schooled me” on the how the sap runs and what it takes to make syrup. While the method of the making may be different for each, the end product is indeed something to be treasured.
Doug told me that his family farm has 2,200 buckets spread across 70 acres of farmland. “We use the traditional method of taps and buckets to collect the sap. It is a little more labor-intensive, but for us it is worth the effort.”
Their wood-fired process boils off enough water to produce about 700 gallons of syrup a year. “We are carrying on a family tradition. I’m a seventh-generation farmer and keep to what I have learned.” Those lessons have been well-learned. Bragg Farm syrup has won Best-in-Show at the prestigious Vermont Maple Festival three times.
The Morse family has been making syrup since 1789. Burr tells me this is shaping up to be an “old fashioned sugar year.” He uses March 16 as a measure. “Half the time we are making syrup by then, the other half we start after that. As long as the sap is running fast and furious, we’ll have a great season.” Some five miles of tubing leads the sap to the to the evaporator where a reverse osmosis process will get the sap ready to be boiled into about 2,200 gallons of syrup.
This year, a small “hobby evaporator” has been added at Morse Farm. This will allow small batches of syrup to be produced earlier in the day so that, according to Burr, “Visitors can stop by earlier to see an old-timer plugging away at his trade.” The larger evaporator will still be readying the larger batches to be made into syrup later in the day.
One thing I did learn years ago was that if it doesn’t say “pure maple” on the label, the container probably doesn’t contain any maple syrup at all. Pure maple is what you will get when you stop by Bragg Farm and Morse Farm.
If you are looking for something to do in the upcoming weekends, stop by Bragg Farm, Morse Farm or any of the Vermont maple farms for a little Sugar on Snow. You’ll be glad you did.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.