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Steam keeps rising in sugarshacks as maple season surprises

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Posted on March 24, 2016 |
By Gaen Murphree



sugaring3345 LEAD PHOTO.jpg
SUGARMAKER DON GALE adds fuel to the fire in his large, wood-burning evaporator arch last Thursday afternoon in Lincoln where he and his family operate Twin Maple Sugarworks. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — From the back roads of Lincoln, high in the Green Mountain National Forest, to the plowed-earth fields of Orwell sweeping close to Lake Champlain, the steam is rising from Addison County sugarhouses and many sugarmakers are working the midnight hours to boil down this year’s sweet crop of maple syrup.

Sugarmakers at all elevations report excellent color and flavor this season and a good-to-above-average year so far despite unseasonably warm temperatures. There’s been just enough chill at night and just enough coolness in the day to keep the sap running for the past month or more.

At the highest elevations, sugarmakers are keeping fingers crossed that the run could continue for the next two or even three weeks into April. At the lowest elevations, sugarmakers say that the trees are not yet budding, but they expect maybe just a week more of sugaring before they begin to see the distinctive red on the maple trees that will signal the end of this year’s season.

“It’s been unbelievable,” said Don Gale of Twin Maple Sugarworks in Lincoln. “Huge volumes, a little bit low on sugar, but volumewise it’s just phenomenal.”

SUGARING UP TOP

Perched in the trees almost at the point of where South Lincoln Road gets shut down every winter, Solar Sweet Maple Farm (at just under 1,600 feet of elevation) is among the sugarhouses at the highest elevations in Addison County.

Owner Tom Gadhue reports a great year for maple sugaring, with Solar Sweet’s first boil starting Feb. 5. What a difference a year can make.

“Last year we were fighting to keep our face out of the snow,” he said. “This year we could have tapped in sneakers.”

Despite the mild winter, Gadhue said the frost went deep into the ground, giving the trees the dormancy and chill they needed to keep the season going. With 23,341 taps on 360 acres, Gadhue estimates they’ve made over 5,000 gallons of syrup to date and if good conditions hold out, he hopes to make 11,000 or 12,000 gallons total.

Now in its fourth year of operation, Solar Sweet lives up to its name by operating, energywise, at close to net zero. Gadhue is deservedly proud to point out the recycled materials used to build his dream sugarhouse. And the building’s electricity comes almost entirely from roof-mounted solar panels that disappear into the black standing seam roof.

Gale of Twin Maple Sugarworks said that so far he’s had such an incredible year that he’s pretty much gone through his entire woodpile. Gale spoke with the Independent over a much needed cup of coffee, after boiling until 2 a.m. the night before.

“At this point it’s overwhelming,” he said. “That first week when they were predicting those (warm) temperatures, I thought we’d start on Monday and finish on Friday. But thank God the weathermen were wrong this time.”

Gale is one of a handful of Vermont sugarmakers awarded permits to sugar in the national forest, which he’s done since the late 1990s. Gale’s first boil, the earliest in nearly three decades of sugaring, was Feb. 29. Given the unseasonably warm weather, Gale had worried that this year’s season might have been a repeat of one about seven years ago that shut down after less than a week during a blast of sustained heat.

Gale’s sugarhouse is near the Lincoln General Store but his 5,000 taps range from elevations of 1,600 to 2,400 feet. And he said that conditions have been such that sometimes the sap has run all night, but more often than not temperatures have gone down into the 20s at night with just enough freeze to keep the runs going.

The volume of some runs this year has been especially notable. Two years ago, Gale said, he had a day in which he gathered 6,000 gallons of sap. Last year, he had three days in a row where he gathered 6,000 gallons of sap per day. This year, he’s had eight days in a row where he’s gathered 8,000 gallons of sap per day.

Gale has someone cutting more wood to fire his boiler but — not wanting to tempt the gods — said that what happens to the rest of the season is “up to the big guy above.”

For David Folino, whose Hillsboro Sugarworks of Starksboro taps 14,800 trees at elevations ranging from 1,100 to 2,300 feet, the story is similar: 2016 is shaping up to be above average. Usually Hillsboro Sugarworks makes 5,500-6,500 gallons of syrup, and early this week he was already three-quarters of the way there.

Like Gale, Folino said he started boiling around Feb. 28 or 29 — the earliest he’s ever boiled in his 38 years as a sugarmaker.

“We’ve never even boiled in February,” Folino said.

Asked if the unseasonable weather had sugarmakers concerned about global warming, Folino said that his concerns weren’t the downshifts in temperatures — trees are resilient and the season would just start earlier — but the kinds of violent storms he’s seen in recent years. Folino said that storms in the winter of 2014-2015 damaged hundreds of trees.

SUGARING IN THE VALLEY

Down at lower elevations, the sugaring season is farther along and, sugarmakers estimate as they read the differing signs of returning spring, closer to its end.

In Leicester, Andy and Donna Hutchison of Mount Pleasant Sugarworks were looking at the budding lilacs out by their sugarhouse on Tuesday and figuring they’ve got about one more week of harvesting sap. The Mount Pleasant sugarbush sits at an elevation of around 600 feet. This year they put in around 3,600 taps and started to boil with all seriousness on Feb. 17, but they “boiled enough to sweeten the pan” a week earlier. Because of the warmer weather, the Hutchisons started tapping a week earlier than normal.

Andy Hutchison noted that the lack of snow cover made the job of sugaring easier.

“Last year we were thigh deep in it, but this year was much easier,” he said.

The Hutchisons report that this year’s runs have made mostly amber rich syrup with good flavor. In terms of volume, they expect an average year’s harvest, and they had made close to 1,800 gallons of their target of 2,000 as of March 22.

At Shoreham’s Vermont Trade Winds Farm, sugarmakers Tim and Loraine Hescock are hard at work boiling but expect the buds to begin to appear on the maples within a week or two. Tim Hescock grew up sugaring on the family farm and has been operating Trade Winds for the past 13 years.

The Hescocks sugar at an elevation of around 300-400 feet and began boiling on Feb. 22, earlier than last year but pretty close to average for their sugarbush. They started to tap Feb. 12. On Tuesday they were about three-quarters of the way to last year’s volume of 1,300 gallons.

“It’s been pretty steady since Feb. 22,” Tim Hescock said, and then added, “but not every day.”

Looking at the sample bottles lined up from the different boils, Hescock noted that the change to darker color in more recent boils signals the approach of the end of the season.

“The sugar content’s getting weaker,” he said.

Hescock noted that the colder weather over the last weekend has helped bring the volume up.

While at the highest elevations temperatures dropped enough to drive the frost deep into the ground, Hescock noted that in Shoreham there wasn’t much frost in the ground this year.

“The season is probably going to end pretty soon here,” said Tim, “and that’s in part because it’s been such a warm, mild winter. There’s no frost in the ground, whereas the freezing patterns looked pretty good for a while but it might eventually be too late in the season.”

Hescock thinks this year’s season might end up a little shorter than in 2015.

Out at Tom and Mike Audet’s Ledge Haven Farm sugarhouse in Orwell, sugaring is a family affair — with four generations on hand over the course of the afternoon’s boil.

Although you can’t see Lake Champlain from the sugarhouse itself, it’s only a quarter mile or so away as the crow flies.

Tom Audet started sugaring with his brother and step-grandfather in 1974.

This year the Audets started tapping Feb. 2 and were done tapping by Town Meeting Day. The first boil was on Feb. 28 — quite a bit earlier than last year, when the first boil was closer to mid March.

“We could have boiled earlier,” Tom Audet said.

The Audets tapped close to 3,000 trees this year and also purchase sap from nearby family members.

Last year Ledge Haven made 1,200 gallons of syrup and this year Tom Audet expects to make closer to 1,500. One of the best recent seasons, he said, was a couple of years ago when they made 2,000 gallons.

“It all depends on Mother Nature, that’s for sure,” Audet said.

Like the other lower-elevation sugarmakers, Audet thinks they have a week, maybe two left in the season.

Asked how he knows this, Audet steps outside the sugarhouse and points far across an open field to where a large stand of maples clusters at the edge of the horizon, still standing stark in their winter browns and grays.

When those trees start to turn red, he said, the sugarmakers at Ledge Haven will know the season is about to draw to a close.

This year’s Maple Open House Weekend will be April 2-3. For more information go online to vermontmaple.org/mohw.

For more information about the sugarhouses in this article, go to:

hillsborosugarworks.com

• mountpleasantmaple.com

• solarsweetmaplefarm.com

• twinmaplesugarworks.com

• vermonttradewinds.com

vtmaple.net (the website for Ledge Haven Farm)

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