Staples on the farm

Maple sugaring in New England ranges from large-scale, state-of-the-art sugarhouses to hole-in-the-wall sugar shacks. Whether the market is direct sales to the local community or bulk sales to wholesale accounts, maple sap and the resulting syrups, candies, confections and more are an important part of the New England farming community.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the sugarhouse at Connolly Brothers Dairy Farm in Temple, New Hampshire, is a main attraction. For at least a few weeks each year, the Jersey cows and their dairy products have to share the spotlight with all things maple.

“Sugaring is something we’ve always been doing on a small scale,” said Chris Connolly, the oldest sibling and manager of Connolly Brothers Dairy Farm and Connolly’s Sugar House. “We never really pushed it.” Nevertheless, the sugaring side of the operation has continued to grow.

Maple evolution

The dairy’s on-farm store opened in 2001 with the main purpose of selling hamburger from the farm’s cull dairy cows. The maple syrup on the shelves of the store was from a neighbor. When the neighbor was no longer able to produce syrup, and it was evident that the demand was there, the brothers – Chris, Mike and Patrick, along with their respective wives, Jennifer, Cindi and Jill – decided to expand their family-scale sugaring operations and supply the farm store with syrup. The maple syrup is in demand, and sugaring tours draw crowds from nearby Manchester, New Hampshire, and Boston.

This past season, there were prolonged periods of extreme cold. The snow was deeper than usual, preventing them from getting all of their taps in for the season. They produced 150 gallons of syrup on 800 taps in 2013, but for the 2014 season they had only 500 taps, and production was well below normal.

During the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association’s Maple Sugaring Month and 19th annual Maple Weekend, the farm hosted over 1,000 visitors. They literally could not keep the syrup on the shelves.

Connolly said they were boiling it as fast as they could and packing it. “People were taking it away hot,” he noted.

Even when the demand is high, the maple syrup sold under the Connolly label is exclusively their own. When they purchase supplemental syrup from an uncle or a neighbor, it’s labeled as such. It’s a part of their farming philosophy to keep it modest in scale, sustainable in nature and authentic.

Expanding maple sales

The 70-cow dairy herd was reduced to 30 cows in 2007. That’s when the brothers opted to diversify from the wholesale milk market and look for a better way to profitably run the farm. The cull dairy beef was selling well in the store, and the family had added a herd of Herefords to increase meat production.

Raw milk was in demand, so they obtained a license and began on-farm raw milk sales. At one time, they were one of the largest raw milk providers in New Hampshire. They also began selling ice cream in 2003, purchasing the ice cream mix from the HP Hood plant in Concord, New Hampshire, an affiliate of the Dairy Farmers of America. Although the mix isn’t their own milk exclusively, it’s primarily sourced from New Hampshire’s dairy farms, with a bit from neighboring Vermont included. This regionally sourced milk hits close to home, and they make the ice cream their own by adding their unique flavoring and purees, as well as finishing the processing steps on the farm. They’ve also begun making cheeses.

The commercial sugaring operation was added about four years ago. They tap all the maple trees on the farm, not just the sugar maples. They also lease a sugar bush, where they tap only sugar maples. Between the two properties, the goal is to increase the number of taps to 1,500.

They have 80 taps on buckets on a neighbor’s property, and a few bucket taps near the sugarhouse for demonstrations, but the majority of the taps are on gravity tubing. It would be difficult to provide electricity for pumps in most of the sugar bush, although they’re experimenting with pump options in some locations and will probably expand the pumping capacity in the future, Connolly said.

There are three main collection points for the sap. Trucks are used to transport collection tanks to the sugarhouse, where the sap is placed in a larger storage tank.

Sustainable focus

Connolly’s Sugar House stands in contrast to its neighbor, Ben’s Sugar Shack. At Ben’s, the evaporator is oil-fired, the equipment is state-of-the-art, and the production is much larger. It’s a successful and well-visited operation, named one of the top 10 sugarhouses by Fox News in 2013. The large retail operation has many specialty items and produces a higher volume of syrup. Those who visit these neighboring operations can “see both ends of the spectrum,” Connolly said.

The Connollys showcase a simpler method of sugaring. They use a wood-fired evaporator and have no reverse osmosis equipment. They do have a preheating hood, which they purchased with part of a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant. The hood increases efficiency by at least 30 percent, so less energy is required to boil the sap into syrup. They use a drum filter, which Connolly described as a “stainless steel bucket under pressure.” Syrup is stored in 5-gallon containers in a large refrigerator unit and is filtered, heated and bottled as needed throughout the year.

“We finish it on the evaporator. Rarely do we have to boil it down any more,” Connolly said.

The wood used to fire the evaporator is from the sugar bush. They harvest fallen and damaged trees, as well as some to maintain a healthy forest canopy. A large ice storm in 2008 wreaked havoc on the sugar bush, and a lot of cleanup is still in progress. They don’t cut down trees just to fuel the evaporator, and they use sustainable harvesting techniques.

They have grazed their cows in the sugar bush in a silvopasturing model, but ran into problems when the lines, which stay up year-round, weren’t high enough to prevent the cows from damaging them.

Hunting on the property keeps deer in check, so the main damage to the lines is from chipmunks or squirrels chewing on them right at the trunks, but even that is minimal.

The operation is a licensed tree farm, and they work with a forester. The family also runs a hunting preserve and hunting lodge – a converted barn – on the property. The sugar bush is integral to the farm, and all parts of the operation work together to keep it healthy and thriving.

“We try to make it so that it all complements each other,” Connolly said of the farm’s diverse operations.

Syrup and more

The maple-flavored ice cream and maple creams available at the on-farm ice cream shop are made with grade B syrup, Connolly said. The Connollys also offer maple-covered peanuts and maple-flavored cotton candy.

Aside from the edibles, a family friend and soap producer uses milk from the farm’s cows to make Connolly Brothers Dairy Farm maple soap and a milk-based hand cream. Lip balm, made using beeswax from the farm’s beehives, is also sold at the store. The family grows herbs and flowers that are utilized in their line of skin care products.

The Connolly brothers have returned to the dairy farm of their youth and are raising the next generation there. Each brother has his own enterprise – pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs and more – but the dairy farm, beef business and sugarhouse are all family-owned enterprises. With the change in focus that has taken the farm from the conventional dairy it was to the diversified, visitor-friendly operation it is today, Connolly sees a future in farming for the entire family.

“There’s a future. There’s potential. There is something that we are still striving for,” Connolly said. Using a sustainable philosophy to grow the farm will enable it to support future generations of the Connolly family. Life on the farm, it seems, can be quite a sweet experience.