In Connecticut, there’s an old rule among maple syrup producers – tap between Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 11) and Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22). Typically, during that period, nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s and 30s and reach the high 30s to low 40s during the day. The cycle of cold nights and slightly warm days stimulates sap flow. The 2017 sugaring season was disappointingly warm in Connecticut. Warm nights and warm days, with temperatures up to 70 during the day, accelerated budding and stifled sap flow.
Mark Harran, president of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut (MSPAC), reported that sugar content was down as well – at 2 percent or lower throughout the season. “We want it to start at 3 percent or 4 percent and drop to 2 percent and 1 percent later in the season,” he said.
Once the maple tree leafs, the sap gets bitter, so the unseasonably warm temperatures probably contributed to the decrease in sugar content throughout the state.
“It’s not a reason to give up. I’ve been through a season like this 10 years ago and a season that was bad because it was too cold,” said Harran. “The maple syrup business is not done in this area by any means. We just had an off year for people who tapped at what is historically the normal time in Connecticut. Those who tapped early in January and were using vacuum-assisted tubing probably had an average season.” Harran suggested the state’s producers tap earlier if the weather trend continues.
It was a bitter, windy March day at the Plymouth Maple Festival at the church in town. Amidst a whirlwind of activities – horse rides, a pancake breakfast, craft activities and a fire pit – stood Jerry Milne boiling maple sap. He was explaining the basic science of producing maple syrup to a visitor from Cumbria, England, who watched Milne’s demonstration wide-eyed and exclaimed, “We don’t have this in the U.K.”
Milne, a “backyarder” who’s produced maple syrup for about 30 years, started the ever-growing festival four years ago to celebrate the local maple scene.
The little state that could
A suburban state with little forest, Connecticut vies with Indiana and Minnesota as the smallest of the 14 states that produce syrup commercially. In U.S. syrup production, Vermont leads and New York follows. Annual maple syrup sales in Connecticut approach $2 million, although only 0.1 percent of available maple trees in Connecticut are tapped. (Vermont producers tap 4 percent.) “We have a lot of upside potential in Connecticut,” Harran noted.
Recognizing the capacity for growth in this sector of the state’s agricultural industry, Connecticut’s Department of Agriculture launched a pilot program recently that allows syrup producers to lease maple trees in state forests. The department posted maple-based recipes on Pinterest and promoted the state’s maple industry in posters and on Facebook with the slogan, “Tap Into the Sweetness: Connecticut Grown Maple Syrup.”
Connecticut’s maple syrup producers get the highest per-gallon price of any state. In Burlington, where the average annual income is $114,000, producer Rob Lamothe retails his syrup for $72 per gallon, $42 per half gallon and $25 per quart. Lamothe started in 1971 with seven taps and a little cast iron laundry stove outside.
“We got snowed on [and] rained on, but we had fun,” he said. This year, Lamothe put out 5,600 taps and collected about 86,000 gallons of sap, which made over 1,500 gallons of syrup.
Lamothe’s sugarhouse hosted 4,000 visitors during the 2017 sugaring season, including inner city school groups, scout troops, church groups and senior citizen groups. “The kids from the inner city were the most well behaved, most engaging, most energetic young people that I’ve seen in a long time,” Lamothe said.
Lamothe also hosted several families looking for cheap entertainment for their kids. “We give a 25-minute presentation, tell them how we tap the trees, show them the tubing and give them a taste. We give them pencils with Department of Ag logos on them and put a sticker on each kid’s jacket that says “Amber.” The kids just love it!”
For Lamothe, sharing the joys of maple syrup and maple sugaring is a way to express his personal faith and a part of the sugaring ethos throughout North America. Over the years, he has learned aspects of the trade from producers in Vermont and Wisconsin.
“You get to know the history, the culture, the people, the players, the producers, the young people at the ag schools and they all get to be your friends,” he said. “There are guys who are a flash in the pan and give up after one or two seasons. The ones who stay the course, they become people you can call up if you have a question or a problem. It becomes a fraternal order. You’re willing to stop and help someone out.”
The maple scene
Although Connecticut’s maple producers are connected deeply to producers elsewhere, there is a definite “scene” in Connecticut’s maple industry that involves festivals, interactions with the University of Connecticut’s ag school in Storrs and Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut (MSPAC) meetings. MSPAC lists nearly 200 members and Harran said the organization is growing with more young people joining.
A member of MSPAC, the Stamford Museum and Nature Center’s sugarhouse is the closest public sugarhouse to New York City. During an average season the farm produces over 60 gallons of pure Connecticut maple syrup from over 300 maple trees on site. They use a 2- by 6-foot wood-fired evaporator to boil the sap. Annually, more than 2,000 people visit the sugarhouse, including more than 750 schoolchildren. The center offers school programs, adult programs and open house events including a Maple Sugar Festival Weekend, where visitors can observe maple sugaring methods from three periods in American history. Festivalgoer and Stamford resident Pat Standaert was demonstrating the Native process of making maple sugar rather than maple syrup.
At the bottom of the hill, Spencer Rankin, Jr., 18, an Eagle Scout with Stamford’s Boy Scout Troop 11, demonstrated the colonial method of boiling maple syrup.
“The nature center collects the sap and gives it to us to boil,” he explained. “We’ve been boiling it since yesterday. You can see the caramelization from the sugar is there. It’s still quite liquidy. It’s not as thick.”
Rankin, who hopes to study chemical engineering in college this fall, started participating in these demonstrations at age 11. “I love doing this. It’s a fun way to get out [and] teach everyone about this,” he said.
Inside the modern sugarhouse, Lisa Monachelli, director of education, discussed maple syrup production with visitors.
“We’re a working farm,” said Monachelli. “People are so fascinated by the product and the way that it’s made. That education piece connects the history, connects people to the land and that works so well. We protect what we love. If you don’t understand something and you don’t feel that ownership, you aren’t going to put the effort into protecting it.”
Stamford Museum & Nature Center
In 1990, Russ Schaller and five other maple producers in and around the town of Hebron started the Hebron Maple Festival to get people involved in sugaring. “I sold a lot of people buckets just to get them started,” Schaller said. “We just wanted to get the kids out to know where it comes from.”
Twenty-seven years later, the annual Hebron Maple Festival is run by the Windham Chamber of Commerce and Windham Arts Council with involvement from two sugarhouses. “We’ve worked hard to make it more organized, to add more diversity, more food vendors and we introduced an actual craft fair,” said Windham Chamber of Commerce Representative Melanie Brule. “In that sense it has grown a lot.”
Festival organizers arranged for parking at the local high school with school buses serving as shuttles. I had trouble finding a seat on my bus because people had come from all over the state and from as far away as Massachusetts to experience the wide variety of activities. Vendors were diverse, ranging from organic henna tattoo artists to window vendors and Girl Scouts selling cookies. The craft fair was populated by true artisans whose work included boxes made from old books, fine handcrafted jewelry, fine woodwork and hand-knit clothing. Local cafes offered maple-based snacks.
Most of the sugarhouses in Hebron and surrounding towns were not open to the public. However, Wenzel’s and Woodyacres, two founding members of the festival, welcomed festival visitors. Schaller, owner of Woodyacres, is a part-time maple syrup producer and MSPAC member who recently retired from an off-farm job. Since he’s had more time to devote to collecting sap and sugaring, Schaller started experimenting with new methods. This is the first year he used tubing to collect the sap. (According to Harran, using tubing enhances productivity by two to three times per tap per tree and doesn’t hurt the tree.)
“It works out so much better!” Schaller said. “Now, they have 3/16 tubing and as long as you have a 20-foot drop it creates its own vacuum. The 5/16 would bring it down the hill but wouldn’t create its own vacuum. The 3/16 creates its own vacuum, so you can get even more out of the tree. I know I’ve done a lot better with it.”
Lamothe uses 5/16 tubing and 7/16 tubing. “I don’t use 3/16 because I’m not sure that technology is going to be lasting. If you get one little chip of wood in that tubing you’re screwed. But for a small producer who’s going to take the tubing down at the end of the season, it may be a good fit for them. It’s not a good fit for us. I don’t want to use or sell anything that I haven’t used for two to three years …”
In addition to producing syrup and value-added products, Lamothe sells equipment to other maple producers at his farm store, which is open seven days a week. As Lamothe sees it, the maple scene in Connecticut is simple: people with a common goal who love the process of making maple syrup.