Three generations of sugaring in Vermont
"We just want to stay the same so people will know what we think maple syrup should taste like," said Earle Randall. For three generations, the Golden Buckets sugarhouse in Barton, Vt., has been part of the Randall family. Earle, who is 85 years old, built it with his father, Gorden Baker, in 1937. He and his daughter, Sue, now manage the operation.
The Golden Buckets sugarhouse in Barton, Vt. Owner Earle Randall, who is now 85, has been sugaring in this sugarhouse since he was 9 years old.
Photos by Cynthia Tokos.
Proud, strong and independent, Sue and Earle are true Vermonters. Earle was born in Barton and has lived there for most of his life. He has been sugaring in the same sugarhouse since he was 9; he started boiling when he was 12.
The Randalls use no electricity or running water in the sugarhouse; the operation is gravity-based. They have a total of 1,100 taps. About 525 are on buckets on their property, and about 575 are on gravity-fed pipeline in Tyler Bean's maple orchard in Sheffield, Vt. Bean is a retired Lake Region Union High School teacher. In exchange for the sap from Bean's trees, the Randalls help maintain his pipeline. Sue said, "We are very conservative in our tapping techniques. None of our trees have more than two taps, and most have only one tap."
Sue plans to continue using her father's methods. "We don't have electricity, and as long as I own the sugarhouse, I don't intend to put any in. We want to maintain the flavor," she said. "We try to make enough money to pay for the operation, including the taxes. If we can do that, we are happy. Yes, it's a lot of work. But it's also a lot of fun."
The sugarhouse measures about 20 feet by 20 feet and sits close to the top of the 10 acres of usable sugar bush on their 45 acres. The structure houses a 5-by-12-foot wood-fired evaporator and a stainless steel holding tank that has the capacity to store 800 gallons of sap. Attached to the sugarhouse are a 15-by-20-foot woodshed and an 8-by-12-foot sap house. Having the 1,100 taps enables them to make an average of 150 gallons of syrup.
Last year, due to above-normal temperatures, tapping started in the middle of February. Normally, Earle said, "The plan is to be tapped by the 10th of March."
Earle and Sue Randall get the evaporator ready.
They participate in Vermont's annual Open House Weekend, which is held in March. Because of last year's short season, the Randalls ran out of sap early. It didn't stop them from being part of the celebration - they were just more creative about it.
The sugarhouse contains a 5-by-12-foot wood-fired evaporator and a stainless steel holding tank that has the capacity to store 800 gallons of sap.
Sue described what they did: "We had sap left in the rig from last year after we shut down from boiling, so we filled [the rig] with water and boiled it. We had maple flavor and steam coming off the evaporator because we still had sap in it. It was kind of nice because it gave me more time to interact with our visitors. When you're boiling, you need to pay attention, as I pull syrup off the rig every 10 minutes. It does keep you busy. Every time I fire, I get a batch of syrup."
The wood-fired evaporator has no blower, steam-away or hood. When boiling, it needs constant attention, because without enough sap in the evaporator, the rig can burn.
There's a science to making maple syrup like the Randalls do, but Earle will say there's also an art to it. He and his daughter feel that when sugaring becomes too mechanical it loses something, so they continue to make syrup the same way it's been done at their sugarhouse for years.
Up the road, there's a sugar maker who taps 20,000 to 30,000 trees. Earle said, "He starts his rig up with all the bells and whistles and draws syrup until he shuts the rig down. It's an oil-operated rig and uses reverse osmosis. There's probably an art to that that I'm not aware of, but it's certainly a different art than what we are doing. If something malfunctions, they're in trouble just as quick. I'm not saying it doesn't take skill and attention to make syrup with an operation like that, but it does [with] mine too."
That doesn't just mean the work in the sugarhouse.
With a pipeline, sap runs right into a storage tank. With buckets, you have to gather, dump it into a storage tank and sometimes wait until the next day to boil. Sue said, "We boil the sap we have gathered as soon after it is in the sugarhouse as we possibly can. Often it is boiled the same day as [it's] gathered, but we do not boil at night since we have no electricity, so occasionally we are forced to wait until very early the next morning to boil, if the sap is gathered late in the day."
Wood waiting to be used to fuel the evaporator in the sugarhouse.
Early on, the Randalls gathered their sap using horses; it wasn't until the 1950s that they began using a tractor-pulled wagon. Tapped trees hold 5-gallon pails that are emptied into a tank on the wagon. Once full, gravity takes over, pulling the sap out of the gathering tank through a pipeline into the storage tank for its final run into the evaporator. As soon as it's made, the syrup is filtered and put into containers that are labeled and ready for sale.
The Golden Buckets sugarhouse measures about 20 feet by 20 feet and sits close to the top of the 10 acres of usable sugar bush on the Randalls' 45 acres.
The Randalls feel that because of the process they use, their syrup has its own unique taste. "People think maple syrup is maple syrup, but it's not," said Earle. "I don't care how many good sugar makers [there are] who know what they're doing, the syrup won't taste the same from any one of them on any given day. But you have to know syrup to pick that out. It doesn't make one any better than the other, as it's just the nature of the beast."
Some people consider lighter syrup the best; some like a stronger maple flavor, others like a more delicate flavor. Most producers like the fancy, but from the Randalls' experience, the public favors the darker syrup because it has a stronger maple flavor. Regardless of the grade, they charge the same for all their syrup.
From the Randalls' perspective, there is some concern about the future of Vermont's maple industry, because of the stress put on the trees from excessive tapping. Neither of them can point to any scientific evidence, but they believe that both the flavor of the syrup and the lives of the trees are impacted. Added to this are changes in climate, acid rain and an overall warming trend in Vermont winters, which they think will affect the state's sugar maples. "Don't see how that could possibly not happen," said Sue. "Either a tree will have to mutate [and] flourish under new conditions or eradicate itself."
That's why it's so important to the Randalls to remain true to their vision of making maple syrup. For them, it's tradition, art and science, all wrapped up into one.
Sue Randall and her father, Earle Randall, manage Golden Buckets sugarhouse in Barton, Vt. They make syrup from a 10-acre sugar bush the same way it's been done since the sugarhouse was built in 1937.
Many people start out like they do, without the use of technology, tapping 30 to 50 trees and using a small rig, but then they grow. According to Earle, "They go to labor-saving devices like the lines, and then start in with different technology so they can tap more trees."
He continued, "I believe, and this is just my opinion, as I've tasted syrup from a lot of the big sugar makers, that at some point it becomes more sweet and less maple." That's something that Earle and Sue don't want to happen with their syrup.
Judging by the way they work so hard to keep things the same as they were when the sugarhouse was first built, it doesn't appear that it's anything to worry about.
The author is a marketer, freelance writer and documentary photographer.