A 35-acre old-growth sugar bush in Wolcott, Vermont, provides the sap for Sandiwood Farm’s maple syrup. The forest has been tapped since the 1850s. Today, sugaring is just one part of the farm’s diverse agricultural ventures.
“It was part of our dream to be able to make a living year-round agriculturally from various practices from our land, and this fit perfectly,” Bob Schlosser said of the sugar bush.
Bob and his wife, Sara, purchased the land about 25 years ago and started their farming endeavor. From the beginning, the Schlossers knew sugaring would be a part of the farm operation, and they eagerly anticipated their first sugaring season. When they purchased the land, it included all the sugaring equipment they needed to get started.
However, Sara said, “I didn’t realize how old our equipment was until I saw some of what we were using in a museum.”
The sugar bush, which has a 3,000-tap potential, had 2,500 taps in 1850. Sap was collected from buckets and hauled to the sugarhouse by oxen. Eventually, horses replaced the oxen, but the buckets and old taps remained. With 1,200 taps dripping sap into buckets, the couple began their sugaring enterprise the old-fashioned way in 1990.
“We are at a particular altitude and climate with a lot of wind. The boiling temperatures vary depending on the barometric pressure, which we track during sugaring time,” Bob said. “Like fine cheese and wine, you just can’t get another maple syrup like we boil in our sugarhouse in early spring.”
Not much has changed since then. Buckets still hang from some of the trees in the Sandiwood Farm sugar bush. Even though the horses and oxen are long gone, 50 taps were on the bucket system last season, with another 300 taps on gravity lines. With the sugarhouse’s location at the top of the sugar bush, they only have a small portion of the trees on a main line directly to the primary holding tank there. For the majority of the taps, they’ve plumbed lines to collection tanks located throughout the woods. A bulldozer with a trailer and gathering tank is used to gather sap from the collection tanks and transport it to the sugarhouse.
The Schlossers aren’t looking to make more syrup; they’re downsizing the sugaring operation. For the 2014 season, they had the smallest number of taps in the farm’s history. Several years ago, they sold their 5-by-16-foot evaporating pan, opting instead for a 2.5-by-8-foot model with a preheater hood.
“This takes a lot longer to boil a gallon of syrup, but we don’t want to tap at least 1,000 trees anymore to be able to run the larger evaporator,” Bob explained.
The couple has decided to scale back maple syrup production for a variety of reasons. They believe in keeping the operation simple, using wood-fired boilers, boiling in very small batches, and not using reverse osmosis or vacuum tubing. They said the old-fashioned techniques help give the syrup its “unique and special” flavor, one that just isn’t the same when modern equipment is used.
Bob noted that they still burned 4 or 5 cords of wood, almost a cord per boil. “The wood is cut throughout the year from downed trees in the sugar bush. We want to enjoy sugaring and have fun with sugaring and not have to cut 10 cords of wood.”
They’d also have to make some investments in the sugarhouse and equipment in order to continue to operate on a larger scale, and that isn’t something they want to do. With their many other on-farm enterprises, “[sugaring] runs into greenhouse and planting time, so it starts to get hectic come April,” Bob said. “We want and choose to be small maple producers. It is truly a labor of love, and a quality-of-life job, not a job to count your hours and wages.”
While they have downsized their maple sugaring operation, other farm enterprises have grown. With a full push for agritourism events hosted at the farm, sugaring will continue, but it will have to evolve with the farm’s needs. Bob has worked to make the sugaring operation a one-man enterprise, if necessary, so that it can continue even if only one person can be freed from other farm chores.
“We enjoy making maple syrup,” Sara said. “We put good energy and work into all that goes into the sugaring process.”
The farm’s maple syrup will continue to play a role in the on-farm dinners and events catered by the couple’s daughter, Sandi Schlosser. Sandi runs her Vermont Harvest Catering enterprise from a certified on-farm kitchen. The farm is known for its gourmet fare, made with farm-grown produce and meats, as well as products from other local producers. Dinners at the farm are regular events, and the farm is also available to rent as a venue for special occasions, such as weddings.
“Sandi always uses our maple syrup in many of her dishes, especially dressings, glazes and desserts,” Sara said. “We put out our syrup as a sweetener for beverages at our Farm-to-Fork Dinners.”
Loyal customers order their syrup season after season, and continuing those relationships is important. The farm’s maple syrup will still be sold at the local farmers market, where son Kyle also offers maple lemonade. Through the years, farm market customers have kept the maple syrup sales flowing, with a mail-order component also emerging. Maple syrup income is “sporadic,” Sara noted. Filling mail orders, which encourage people to stock up and fill the box since it costs the same to ship no matter how many bottles are inside, is a good way to minimize the labor and maximize the impact of syrup sales.
From tree to market
The old sugar bush isn’t finished being tapped, even if the Schlossers are decreasing their syrup-making enterprise. They plan to tap 500 trees in the next season or two and are looking into options to sell the sap. They haven’t ruled out trading sap for syrup if the market demand outpaces their production. Finding the right person to invest in upgrading the tubing and pumps and running lines to the road, where sap could be collected easily, in exchange for the use of the sap, is another option.
Selective thinning of the canopy, as well as cutting of trees, has allowed the maple trees in the old-growth forest to thrive. Ice, hail and windstorms are probably the biggest threat to the trees. Borers are the most prominent pests. Without the use of vacuum tubing, they’re dependent on the perfect weather for the sap to run.
“It’s farming, and it’s always a gamble,” Bob said.
The Schlossers are invested in finding innovative solutions to ensure that the farm’s old-growth forest continues to be tapped. The potential to increase taps back to the levels found in the 1800s remains.
“Our sugar bush has been sugared since the mid-1800s,” Sara said. “We have a huge potential. We’re still exploring creative options.”