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Slayton: Sugaring at Last

Two weeks ago, when the long winter was still holding onto Vermont with its icy fingers, I wondered if there’d be much of a maple sugaring season at all this year. But now that we’ve had several days of thawing weather and spring seems like something more than an abstract possibility, I’ve started to see steam issuing from sugarhouses across central Vermont, and that’s a good sign!

The start of the sugaring season is good news for me, personally, because I love to visit working sugarhouses. There’s something about standing next to a roaring wood fire, smelling the sweet aroma of boiling maple sap, and watching steam rise into the night sky that makes spring real for me.

Maybe it’s the ancient alchemy of fire and water – boiling something as miraculously ordinary as tree sap into a delicious product you can eat. Maybe it’s just nice to be outside again. Whatever. Maple sugaring, to me, is both real work – and pure magic.

There’s a lot of fascinating technology involved in any sugarhouse, of course. Some of it – reverse osmosis machines and vacuum pumps to pull the sap out of reluctant maples – is pretty sophisticated. And some of it’s basic and almost obvious.

When my friend Craig Line pulled up to his sugarhouse with a huge tank full of sap last week, we all sort of wondered how he’d get that half-ton of liquid up into his 900-gallon holding tank, which feeds his boiling pan and is about 10 feet off the ground. But then Craig pulled out a little electric pump and a hose and before you could say “Grade A medium amber” the sap was on its way to the big tank. We were all impressed.

What kind of season do sugarmakers think they’ll have? Craig says he’s optimistic – some cold nights and sunny days, and he might make several hundred gallons of syrup. Burr Morse, who runs the Morse Farm sugarhouse just outside Montpelier, describes himself as “a sap-tank half-empty kind of guy,” and is concerned that the nights are getting too warm, too early. That might shut the season down, he said. Maybe sap-sucker technology, that can produce sap even when weather conditions aren’t ideal, will salvage this season, Morse thinks.

His father, the late Harry Morse, was once asked what he thought the sugaring season would be like. “Ask me in May,” he replied. Wise man.

What struck me this year was that despite all the various technologies involved, sugaring is still a pretty primal activity – the fire burns, the sap boils, and out comes the sweet essence of the forest. It’s the first crop of the year - one about as old as Vermont and one still dependant on the whims of the weather gods.

And so each spring, as snow melts and plants turn toward the sun, I turn toward the nearest sugarhouse, eager to witness the start of the farming year, one more time.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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