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Hardwick farmer on sugarhouse parties, maple tree care and the horses who know his voice

A man in flannel, jeans and a baseball cap and a beard stands next to boiling sap in a wooden sugarhouse.
Erica Heilman
Forrest Foster sugars at his small organic dairy in Hardwick.

Forrest Foster runs a small organic dairy in Hardwick. He works from about 5 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. every day of the week, and this time of year, in addition to all his barn chores, he sugars. Independent producer Erica Heilman stopped in last weekend to see how he was coming along.

Forrest Foster: "This is yesterday afternoon’s. Dip right down in. Is that good?"

Erica: "Oh man."

Forrest Foster: "And help yourself to it. I drank pretty near that jugful. I had a pint jug full. I drank pretty near that much the first afternoon — before I got done chores, I had it gone. I’ve had this in here since 1999, and I ain’t burned it. And most everybody gets three years or four years and they get comfortable or they think they can go out and look or ... "

Erica: "Go out and look at what?"

Forrest Foster: "How much sap there is in the thing. You do that... I know how much sap’s in there. I know that at 2:30, I’m going to start letting it slow down and not burn the rig. I want sap left when I’m done."

More from VPR: 'Living The Dream': Father-Son Dairy Farmers Keep It Small, Simple In Essex County

Erica: "OK, so, you can go and check your sap supply. What are the six other reasons why you burn your pan? You know a lot of stories about why things go wrong."

Forrest Foster: "They think they can go away from it and… I stay and wait till it’s done boiling, and then I go feed cows for a while, and just before dark I come back out and cover the pan... and have it so it’s clean and ready to use in the morning.

"Every batch of sap’s got a different amount of sugar in it. One day you can boil all day and make 10 gallons. The next day you can boil all day and make 30 gallons, because you got more sugar in the thing. Mother Nature controls everything we do about making reality. And the sweeter it is, the faster you make syrup, you’re out of sap pretty quick. And so there ain’t nothing you can do if you don’t have a storage supply right here handy and be watching it, you’ll burn the pans."

"You’re drinking, telling a story and then somebody else adds to a story and pretty quick three stories are gone by, and you need to be drawing off syrup and making sure your sap’s coming in."
Forrest Foster

Erica: "OK but what I’m driving at here… people like to visit and drink."

Forrest Foster: "Yup. Oh yeah. Well, it’s one of the biggest things, is sugarhouse parties. And time don’t pass like it should be. You got to have somebody’s eyes on the sap in the pan, or you won’t have a pan with any sap in it."

Erica: "How does time pass?"

Forrest Foster: "You’re drinking, telling a story and then somebody else adds to a story and pretty quick three stories are gone by and you need to be drawing off syrup and making sure your sap’s coming in. My nephew turned 50 on the fifth day of January. Well three or four years ago he comes in. When I get the fire going, that front door will be red hot. I mean cherry red. He smokes a cigarette, he’s gonna open the door and throw the thing in. Bare-handed, he goes over and sticks that… he steps over here…"

Erica: "It’s the door to the fire."

Forrest Foster: "Yup. He put his hand just like that… this is all bright red. I mean it’s 267 degrees. And he done like that and all of his meat and skin stayed stuck right onto that and it sizzled just like a hot dog in a frying pan. You know, he grew up around sugaring. He knew. Too many beers and too much smoking."

A closer-up photo of a man in flannel and a baseball cap inside a sugarhouse.
Erica Heilman
Forrest Foster warns of the dangers of drinking, smoking and telling stories while boiling sap.

Erica: "How much weed gets smoked around…?"

Forrest Foster: "By the tons. Actually by the tons. The boys laugh at me. I used to go to the Orleans Commission sale. We had weekly sales. Tuesday night get done chores at 7:00 p.m., we went to Orleans and you could buy 40 pounds of bananas for 10 cents a pound or a calf or a pig or a used up old boar that needed to be fed a little bit and the sausage will go you all winter out of one pig. And two of my brothers get in the truck with me, and they started rolling their own home-rolled marijuana thing in there, and smoked that thing. I rolled my window down, I’d liked to die. And he says, ‘Yeah you got high once! It was a contact high!’ And that was the last trip to Orleans with me. I don’t like that stuff at all.

"You know, I still got pretty near every old tool I ever had. These are bit braces. This is how you used to do. You go up to the thing and put in these three worms and cranking it and when you can crank that thing into a maple tree 600 times between milking night and morning, you’ve got a sore shoulder."

Erica: "OK, so it’s like an auger."

Forrest Foster: "Yup. This worm helps draw it into the tree…"

Erica: "The worm is also a thread…"

Forrest Foster: "Yup. And it keeps the shavings coming back out. My horses learned my voice just as good as could be. Dad and I had 1,700 buckets on individual trees. He’d stay in the sugarhouse and boil, and I’d go to every tree with two five-gallon pails and lug it… and if I come out to the road a 100 feet down the road, I’d tell them, ‘Jeeup Dolly! Jeeup Babe!’ and they’d come over and stop where I was. They minded, because they done every day, and when I’m feeding them night and morning, I’m talking to them or cleaning them out and bedding them. You always connected with the earth and the animals and stuff and it’s… it’s the way of life. Back then."

Erica: "Year after year after year, 1,700 buckets on these trees. What do you think about the trees?"

Forrest Foster: "Keeping 'em healthy. You know if there’s a tree a foot through and it’s got a lot of branches and a lot of … you got good sap flow, put two buckets on it. If you got one that’s kind of tall and narrow and in a thick place in the woods there and not very much branches, just put one spout on it. Too much manure is too much potash. It’ll kill an apple orchard in three years. Maple trees same way. They can stand the rotten down hay, rotten down oat straw, all of that stuff, because it makes humus. The leaves that go back in there… you see them chips that I got? That’s what a lot of that is, to go around the thing. To make carbon and humus. It makes the trees food. You want to keep them as long as you can. It’s a good marriage, that’s what it is. You tend to them and keep 'em working because they’re also working for you all the time. The better you treat 'em, put back some chips and some hay… once in a while if I have extra horse manure I’ll put a little on, but I don’t put cow manure, that’s got too much potash or cow piss…"

"I don’t have big ideas. I just get through one more day and make some more syrup and eat some of it."
Forrest Foster

Erica: "But you put a little."

Forrest Foster: "You put a little. It’s like I was saying. Have a can of beer but don’t drink a 30-pack every day. Don’t overdo. Just nourish 'em a little bit. I’ve got 'em, that’s 42 years, and they’re just as good as when I started tapping. There’s trees there that are probably 250 years old. They’re still doing good sap and giving plenty and still growing good. Yeah. It’s a life. It’s your whole life to learn all those things, and it’s a whole life.

"See that drip?"

Erica: "Yup."

Forrest Foster: "That’s thawing out and letting that go. That’s gonna thaw this line out and I can go ahead and build the fire and that will come in enough to supply us."

Erica: "So you don’t have to pour precious sap…"

Forrest Foster: "Yup! We ain’t got to waste any precious sap on ..."

Erica: "There are long periods of quietude where everything’s right, everything’s working. What are some of the big ideas you have out here?"

Forrest Foster: "Set on that milk can right there and eat a jelly donut and maple syrup. I don’t have big ideas. I just get through one more day and make some more syrup and eat some of it."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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