Vermont Sugar Makers Take Pride in Tradition
Maple syrup is as traditional a product as it gets. Production isn't easy, but it doesn't have to be complicated either. With some sugar maples, taps, buckets, an evaporator pan and a wood fire, home sugaring can be accomplished. From this, an enterprise can grow. Whether producing on a small scale or growing larger to meet demand, tradition is still an importa
nt element for many Vermont sugar makers.
Sugar maker Gary Macia tends to the syrup at Newhall Farm in Reading, Vt.
Photo courtesy of Newhall Farm.
Justin Turco working the taps at Cross Road Sugaring Co. in Ira, Vt.
Photo by John Penwarden.
At Cross Road Sugaring Co. in Ira, Vt., Justin Turco and family are rooted in tradition, tapping 200 trees for a total of 550 taps and producing 135 gallons of syrup each year from 75 acres of land. Turco learned the art of sugaring from his family. He started small, with a barrel stove evaporator and 1 gallon of syrup proudly finished after 14 hours of boiling. That success fueled his sugaring ambitions, and in 2003 Turco built his sugarhouse. Turco uses a 2-by-6-foot Grimm Lightning evaporator and fuels the arch with wood.
"I like that I can make firewood right on my own land," Turco said. "I can't do that with oil."
Turco also likes the connection he maintains with his heritage. "My grandfathers fired with wood. I'm thinking of them and of all the old Vermonters who've done it this way when I sugar."
Over at Newhall Farm in Reading, Vt., about 45 minutes away from Turco's operation, the 2,100 taps in two of the three sugar bushes sit in "the Alps," at an elevation of 1,800 feet. The farm should produce over 600 gallons of syrup, as long as the season isn't as bad as 2012, when yields were drastically reduced, said Linda Fondulas, who, along with her husband, Ted, manages the Newhall Farm estate.
"Prior to 2009, all our sugar bushes were leased. Our largest sugar bush of about 3,000 taps is currently still leased," Fondulas noted. "This lessee also bottles our syrup."
Art and science
At Newhall Farm, sugar maker Gary Macia feels that their traditional methods provide a subtle difference. They do not use vacuum tubing, nor do they use reverse osmosis. The sugarhouse at Newhall Farm is equipped with a 5-by-14-foot evaporator, which is fired with wood and rated for about 2,500 taps. They have four full-time employees working for six weeks during the sugaring season.
"A possibly unique note about Newhall Farm is that we use a traditional filtering through wool," Macia said. "This could have a subtle taste difference compared to nontraditional means, such as reverse osmosis or filter press."
The land can also impart its own taste differences, and due to the elevation of the sugar bush at Newhall Farm, its syrup "will probably taste slightly different from someone who gathers syrup from a lower Vermont valley, because of the geological makeup of the soil the trees grow in," Fondulas explained.
In 2003, Justin Turco built this sugarhouse at Cross Road Sugaring Co. in Ira, Vt. Turco uses a 2-by-6-foot Grimm Lightning evaporator and fuels the arch with wood.
Photo courtesy of Cross Road Sugaring Co.
Turco also believes that the particularities of the soil will result in taste differences.
"I have always thought that our sap is higher in minerals than that of other locations. I suspect that we have a higher lime content in our soil than other places in Vermont," he said.
Environmental stewardship is an integral element of sugaring. Maintaining a healthy sugar bush requires more than just placing taps in trees and hoping for the best. Keeping the forest as well as the individual trees www healthy is a necessary part of sustaining a sugar bush.
"The biggest threat to all sugar bushes is climate change," Macia said. "A diverse culture of trees is important, as a monoculture environment is more susceptible to disease."
Turco said, "Sugaring allows me to productively use our land while keeping it as the generations before me have done."
Molly and Maggie Turco assist with the sugaring.
Photo by John Penwarden.
"The mission of Newhall Farm is a commitment to excellence, so whatever we produce, we want it to be of high quality," Fondulas said. Their brand image reflects that quality.
"When we bought the sugarhouse and hired our sugar maker, he was already selling to some wholesale accounts, so we just continued with his contacts. We also did not have labels or bottles chosen for an intended branding initiative," Fondulas said. "We sold most of this  production wholesale to local restaurants and inns."
They are hoping to increase sales on the wholesale side through a distributor, as well as increase sales to local retail stores and inns as they develop the brand.
"We then began a branding initiative and created a logo and labels for 500-milliliter bottles. We also designed a gallon jug and will add quarts when we feel we have increased production enough to satisfy our wholesale opportunities," Fondulas said. "We are trying to get distribution of our 500-milliliter bottles to gourmet stores in New York City. The wholesaler who may take us on sells to distributors and prefers these 500-milliliter bottles to be packed in cases of six because of our high price point."
Turco sells his syrup wholesale and retail on his company's website and through word-of-mouth. They ship half-gallons and smaller sizes via the post office, while gallons are sold at the sugarhouse only.
"We produce mainly Grade A Medium and Dark Amber. We have some Fancy and Grade B available," Turco noted.
Tradition and production
Both Newhall Farm and Cross Road Sugaring Co. use free-run collection with buckets as well as non-vacuum tubing. Collecting sap the old-fashioned way, with buckets, may not be efficient, but it is nostalgic and provides an experience for travelers passing by high-profile areas of the sugar bush. It also requires direct access to the trees in order to collect the sap.
"Aesthetics are a high priority at Newhall Farm, so old-fashioned buckets are used in areas that have high visibility," Fondulas said. They have tubing, but prefer a natural gravity flow for collections, as opposed to using vacuum pumps.
At Cross Road Sugaring Co., Turco also values the image of buckets hanging from taps and relishes the tradition associated with bucket use. He currently uses tubing with sap flowing by gravity, but one day expects to add vacuum pumps to aid in sap collection.
"We are quite traditional in that we put buckets out along the road," Turco said. "Like all maple producers, we are slowly growing and eventually hope to have at least the woods around our sugarhouse set up on vacuum."
While Turco is resistant to some of the changes he has made, such as the addition of a reverse osmosis machine several years ago, he admits that some modernization does have benefits. He acknowledges that the reverse osmosis has tripled his production capacity and made the operation more efficient in terms of fuel use.
Turco said, "I can't believe the wood savings and increase in productivity with the reverse osmosis. The only drawback is that the operation and cleaning of the machine is one more thing to manage while boiling." While Turco may struggle with reverse osmosis not being traditional, he admits that "with reverse osmosis, you make more than just steam."
Turco runs the sugarhouse with the help of his family. "I definitely do not, and could not, stand alone in this operation," Turco said. He credits his wife, Tammie, for being "the most important employee. She gets the job done when my day job takes me away from the sugarhouse. If I'm not around, she is the only one I trust to run the evaporator solo. I could not sugar without her."
When customers pour pure Vermont syrup over their pancakes, Turco hopes that the traditions, care and labor that went into each bottle are somehow conveyed.
"In that container is a lot of tradition. I'd like you to picture the smoke, the fire and steam that is required to fill that container, and for you to have a bit of the joy that I feel when I'm in my sugarhouse. When you close your eyes and savor the taste, you'll know that it wasn't easy, it wasn't fast, and you might not think it was cheap, but it was worth it."
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.