Grandpa would recognize the sugarhouse, but not the spaceship of an evaporator that we're boiling on these days.
Soon we’ll talk shop. But first, a typical early-season evening. It’s February 19, late afternoon, and I’m in the Hall bush, so named for the family who owns the land and rents the tapping rights to us. The forest there is nearly solid hard maple, with a smattering of hornbeam and ash and one beautiful, healthy looking butternut that I ogle whenever I pass. The hill faces west and the horizon is mottling (I guess modeling, too) as I make my way down off the hill after a day of tapping – changing colors in the sky and changing shadows on the snow. On my way down I notice lacelike bird tracks across large expanses of the woodroad – tiny birds chasing tiny birch seeds. It’s teetering on 32 degrees, so I shut the pump down in the roughcut wooden pumphouse with the moss-green roof, put my tool belt in the back of the red pickup, fire the truck up and make my way home, navigating wheel ruts on the sun-softened dirt road. I’ve gotten a lot done and I’m good tired – my knees sore but my head clear. We’re only half tapped but I should make good progress again tomorrow – we’ll be cutting it close but I’m in control. On Maple Hill Road I pass another sugarmaker and we stop and visit for a moment, sharing updates and wondering what the abnormally warm weather in the five-day forecast will bring.
This is the best of sugaring: the time spent in the woods doing simple yet meaningful work; the fraternity with fellow sugarmakers; the excitement on the eve of the first run.
I park in front of the house, and before heading inside for dinner I walk down the hill to check on the sap tank there, which should be holding the first sap of the year. I think I heard it first – a gurgled, adenoidal howl coming from the vacuum pump. Then I saw great, pulsing expulsions of sap and oil from the exhaust pipe. Suffice it to say the whole scene was very bad, the mechanical equivalent of driving your car into a lake.
And that’s the worst of sugaring. Up next was not an evening spent by a glowing woodstove but an evening spent crouched on the bare earth, covered in mud, blowing gouts of sap and crud out of oil lines while the temperature plummeted one last time before an epic warm up. And then a week’s worth of fighting with the pump because it wasn’t drawing fluid right and was on the edge of burning up, and rebuilding a releaser to try to fix the problem that caused the malfunction in the first place while we should have been tapping or boiling sap, and the sap backing up from the bush that was running well in June-like weather, and no one to call to fix the mechanical issues because everyone’s having equipment problems. This is an essential fact in this mad dash of a pursuit: everyone’s stuff goes bad at the same time, and someone else’s problem will always be bigger than yours. The local equipment dealer who services equipment is not going to come fiddle around with your releaser while the guy who bought an $80,000 RO from him is dead in the water with a broken high pressure pump or a membrane that’s clogged with the wrong kind of soap. So it’s on you to fix whatever’s wrong. I’m writing in second person here because guys like me peddle the romance of sugaring – the walks out of the forest beneath mango and peach colored skies, the scarves of sweet steam that rise to mingle with the stars – and the equipment dealers peddle the economic wet dreams – the gadgets that (might just) give you the economies of scale to turn a hobby into a side business – and as a result, droves of new people are getting into sugaring and droves of existing sugarmakers are expanding or are dreaming of expanding, maybe even you. And that’s great – welcome and good luck. But just realize that the technology is the catch. Sugaring is a beautifully simple pursuit – you collect sap and boil it. That’s part of the allure. And yet the way many of us choose to practice it these days is anything but simple.
Anyway. We got the pump and the releaser fixed, had a momentary scare when the other releaser malfunctioned, but got that figured out, too. We’re still not all tapped, though we’re making peace with the idea that we might, in fact, be all tapped for this year. If the season were a NASCAR race, we’d be the car that got held up momentarily on pit row but then came storming back; we’re now firmly integrated into the pack.
Let’s look at the nitty gritty details of the past two weeks through the weather. Here’s the high and low temps of this year compared to last:
The first thing to note is that the historical high and low average temperature in February here is 34 degrees and 11 degrees respectively. So for two years in a row we’ve had an astounding departure from that during the same two weeks. In 2016, February was also abnormally warm, though the term “abnormally warm” seems more and more wrongheaded in this era of climate change, where weirdness is becoming the new normal.
From a production standpoint, this year and last have been amazingly similar. At our Hall bush we collected 14,800 gallons of sap in this two-week window last year. This year we collected 14,940. Isn’t that wild? But there are two important caveats. One is that the higher temperatures in 2017 really killed the grade. Anytime it gets near 60 degrees the bacteria, yeasts, and fungi that are in your spouts, sap lines, and sap tanks start to degrade the sap and start the process of inhibiting sap flow from the tapholes. We had fewer of those really warm days this year, so the sap and the tapholes are cleaner, which bodes well for the coming weeks. The other caveat is that there’s no sugar in the sap this year. That’s hyperbole, but the sugar content is very low – probably because it was such a prolific seed year last year. Most of what we’ve boiled has been 1.5 percent or less, which means an almost 60:1 sap to syrup ratio. So we’ve boiled lots of sap but haven’t made a huge amount of syrup. As it stands we’re at about 56 percent of our target crop if you consider gallons of sap per tap, but about 40 percent of a crop if you consider gallons of syrup per tap.