Students join forces in sweet enterprise

WEYBRIDGE — Students at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury have been hard at work on a new maple sugaring operation for the past year, and this spring it finally began to show results.
With a design by the architecture class, and building by the construction class, a sugarhouse has grown up just below the school’s 330-tree sugarbush in Weybridge since September 2010. This winter, the Forestry and Natural Resources class spent hours installing taps, setting up state-of-the-art equipment and boiling sap.
“It’s a lot of hands-on work,” said Amanda Morse, a Mount Abraham Union High School senior enrolled in the year-long class at the career center. Morse also serves as secretary for the FFA Forestry and Natural Resources chapter, made up of the 12 members of the class.
Despite the unusual weather, the class managed to boil 75 gallons of syrup before taking the taps out this Tuesday, though Aaron Townshend, their teacher, said he anticipates yields between 100 and 150 gallons in a good year.
The maple season is over, save for a public open house at the career center’s sugar house this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Still, the class isn’t done with their maple work yet: The next project is creating a marketing plan and selling the maple syrup. The revenue will support the FFA chapter.
The new sugarhouse replaces the Hannaford Career Center’s old operation in Addison, and sits on a 5-acre plot that the school is leasing from Stanley James. Townshend said the whole setup, between building and sugaring equipment, cost about $25,000, a portion of which was funded through a grant.
The equipment is state-of-the-art, from Swanton-based Leader Evaporator, complete with a reverse osmosis machine that filters water out — raising the concentration of sugar from 1 percent to 4 percent — before sending it to be boiled. The Steam-Away, a newer machine that rests on top of the boiler, raises the temperature of the sap to about 200 degrees before it hits the pan and extracts more water, raising the sugar concentration to about 5 or 6 percent and further increasing the efficiency of the operation.
In the full-time, year-long forestry class, students also learn tree identification, soil sampling, math related to cutting trees and running a business, and other forestry skills. Nevertheless, Morse said, the sugaring operation “is what we’re really passionate about.”
Another perk of that operation is the syrup sampling the class does.
“We’ve sampled a lot,” Morse said with a laugh. “We’ve learned about off-flavors, and we get to grade the syrup.”
Jared Allen, a Mount Abe junior, said he’s been able to pursue his passion for sugaring even further — through the school, he’s been able to work with Norris Sugarworks in Starksboro this winter. Working at a 17,000-tap operation, he said, has been a very different experience from the Hannaford Career Center’s smaller sugarmaking setup.
All in all, the students have enjoyed their hands-on experience in the sugarbush.
“It’s not just some normal high school class,” Morse said. “We don’t get stuck in a classroom, and we learn what we feel is important.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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