Patchwork: Maple expert harvests first crop of the year

(Written with Kenn Hastings and Valerie Smith Hastings)
Spring teases, as is her wont in March. Longer days and the pendulum swing of the thermometer can mean only one thing. The sap is rising.
At the open house at Breadloaf View Farm last Saturday, amidst flurries and 22-degree weather, geese flying north over head, and we congregate at Churchill and Janet Franklin’s state-of-the-art sugarhouse that they have run under the direction of master sugarmaker Kenn Hastings since 2008. The maple trees lining the mud road down to the sugarhouse are tapped with metal buckets. There’s tubing in other parts of the sugarbush and sap is trucked in from other properties as well. This premier sugarbush was a surprise when the Franklins bought the property in 2001, though it had been maintained and used for sugaring for generations by Hilton Foote.
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“It is a beautiful sugar orchard,” says Kenn.
I have just learned something new. I didn’t know a sugarbush could be called an orchard.
Kenn Hastings is in full action this morning. And he looks happy. Hundreds of folks, children in tow, have come to watch the boil and sample pancakes and sausages. Ever since our youngest son, Angus, went to Kenn’s sugarhouse in Bridport to a birthday party for Kenn’s son Caleb, 12 years ago, we’ve wanted to spend time with Kenn when he is making syrup (I can still hear Angus: “Mom, it was the best birthday party ever! We tapped trees, we boiled syrup, and we drank it hot, right out of the pan!”).
Kenn has been making syrup since he was in the 10th grade at Middlebury Union High School. He hadn’t made it as a young child, though his wife Val’s family, the Fords, had been making it for generations, up on a thousand acres of land now part of the National Forest. Kenn has the sugaring bug; Val does not. She never caught it.
“Sugaring is like some kind of disease. You either have it, or you don’t. Some of the folks I know, folks who grew up on farms, were immune to the disease, ’cause they’d grown up sugaring. But I hadn’t, so I got it. You can call it a sugar ‘bug’ if you like. It starts out as a bug,” says Kenn, a glint in his eye. “I don’t know if the growing up around it made some folks immune. I think more it is a personality type that allows the ‘bug’ to enter your psyche. If you are susceptible, it grows. Like the rising of the sap in the trees, the desire to sugar thaws within the true sugarmaker when the spring breezes begin to blow.”
He is so excited, it is contagious. Kenn is consumed with the process, the history, the people, the visitors who come through to learn, the old time sugarmakers who come by and share their wisdom, and the importance of the industry to Vermont.
“Being a sugarmaker is a little like being one of those medicine men from the old times that would go around with a little wagon, you know, a peddler, that would peddle his wares. He always had some kind of elixir, cod liver oil, or something that would cure all your ills and take care of all your challenges.”
I can’t help but ask, “Have you made any other elixirs we should know about?” Kenn is holding a bottle of birch syrup that came from Alaska, where they make birch syrup like we make maple syrup.
“This came from a friend of mine — the guy who built this sugarhouse — his daughter lives in Alaska, and I gave him some samples of my birch syrup to bring up to the pros up there.”
How did they like it?
“They said that my syrup didn’t taste the same as theirs, but it didn’t taste too bad. I’d probably say the same thing about syrup from Alaska.”
Birch syrup in Vermont?
“Well, two years ago, I got bored. I’d been reading about making birch syrup online, so I tapped 17 birch trees, one tap in each tree, and with just one spout in each, they ran like crazy. Out of 120 gallons of sap, I got 1 gallon of birch syrup. It is kind of like maple syrup, just really, really dark. Tastes different, though.”
As for other elixirs, he says with a smile, “That would be for another conversation!”
Making maple syrup is a living philosophy for Kenn. “To be a good sugarmaker, it takes listening. Even an 80-year-old sugarmaker will tell you something he has learned this year, not something big necessarily, maybe even something he’s just wondered about. We have to be able to always learn something new.” For him “it’s about two things: listening and trying as hard as you can. You can not be a slacker.”
Val adds, “Sugarhouse life is laid back some of the time, but it’s also hurry up and go, hurry up and go, particularly when it’s a wood fired evaporator … It takes over our lives for six weeks because he is never around, from the time you start tapping the trees, and the rhythm changes from winter life into sugaring time.”
Then she observes, “But the work never shows on his face. A sugarmaker doesn’t have the drawn and exhausted look like a farmer can at certain times a year. When Kenn’s paving (he has a paving business when he’s not making maple syrup), he can look tired. But there’s a different feel about this work,” as she gestures at the boiler. “There’s a different way to measure success with maple syrup. There’s the measure of sap to syrup. There are many great accomplishments in a day. And he is very passionate about it. You can see it in him. When he comes home after 12 hours, he looks the same as he did in the morning, sometimes even more excited than when he left.”
I wonder, “How much syrup do you make in a year? How do you know when to tap? This year, after all, started late. How is it going?”
Kenn laughs since these are the questions he gets all day long.
“We normally make 500 to 600 gallons. As for this year, well, it’s best to say that it’s average because it all boils down to that.” We groan and he goes on, “ It’s hard to say because as of March 9, we had processed 2,000 gallons of sap. But a year ago on the 9th, we had processed 11,000 gallons. It started later this year. And the quality is better this year, definitely better. Except, of course, lots of people like it darker. But that’ll come.”
He tells us that the sugarmakers of Vermont generally say, “We tap buckets on Town Meeting Day.” But sometimes it is earlier. Big operations with really modern technology can start as early as January. In this neck of the woods, sometimes Kenn gets a couple of runs before March 1. He uses tap lines for the early runs, and once the season gets going, he puts the buckets out.
Val and I muse about the old Vermont adage that you also start seeds on Meeting Day. I did this year, under grow lights. I also took the Christmas wreath off the front door — I don’t know if that’s a Vermont or a Middlebury tradition.
“What are your biggest challenges?” I ask.
“Our biggest challenge is our window of opportunity. In terms of the calendar year, our window is very small, very minute … I wish there was about 36 hours in the day, instead of just 24.”
I think about Val’s comment “The rhythm changes from winter life to sugaring time” and how much work it takes. It’s this change of season that I am grateful for, not to mention the very maple trees themselves. The steam is rushing up through the vents. Kenn has been tinkering with the evaporator, watching and measuring, as we’ve talked. He hasn’t been still one moment. And I sense the change all around outside: in the rushing water, the return of the geese, the green sprouts under my grow lights, the 12 hours of day light that trigger something in trees, and the sap literally rising. It feels as if maple sugar is the sweet core of mud season, and even though it is intense work, that’s where the joy might be for someone like Kenn and his fellow sugarmakers.

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