Brad Rice first tried his hand at sugaring in the spring of 2009. “I tapped a couple of trees around my yard, and when the sap was running I went from window to window watching it drop.” Soon after, he and his family went to Loudon, New Hampshire, to visit one of the state’s largest sugar makers. “I saw their sugarhouse and thought ‘Wow, this is really huge!’ It was so cool.”
So begins the story of Willow Creek Sugarhouse (http://www.willowcreeksugarhouse.com) in East Kingston, New Hampshire.
When he started out, Rice worked with 25 taps, cinder blocks and a roasting pan. In 2010, he built a sugarhouse and added new tubing and 250 taps.
Everything he learned about sugaring he figured out on his own with the help of some books and http://MapleTrader.com, which Rice says is “the place to go on the Internet for anything you ever wanted to know about maple.”
His 12-by-26-foot sugarhouse was initially going to serve as a shed with space for his tractor, but now the tractor, which is used for his sugaring operation, gets parked outside. A covered area on the side of the sugarhouse is used to store 11 to 12 cords of firewood.
The first official season for the Willow Creek Sugarhouse was 2010, which Rice says was dismal. A big storm hit the area that year and flooded much of his property. There was so much rain that the culverts couldn’t handle the water, and tree-length logs were floating in his front yard. Despite all the money he spent on the sugarhouse, buying an evaporator, and getting set up with tubing and taps, he only produced 25 gallons of syrup.
“I keep doing this because I’ve already spent the initial money, and when you make maple syrup, you’re a slave to the weather,” he says. He calls himself a meteorologist during the sugaring season. “I look at my computer and have four different websites up so I can see what’s happening. Because it changes every day – sometimes every hour,” Rice says.
Willow Creek Sugarhouse is on the New Hampshire seacoast, less than 20 miles inland. There are six or seven sugarhouses on the seacoast. Maple season in the region lasts about six weeks, which includes cleanup and breaking everything down for the following year.
This year, Rice’s first boil was on February 24, and he’s hoping it’s a record-breaking year since he made some big investments in the sugarhouse. “I bought a reverse osmosis machine; I took out a loan from Farm Credit East and also got an energy grant to help pay for it. I upgraded my vacuum pump and my releaser, where the sap comes in, and I’ve got a 500-gallon stainless steel tank. And I’ve got 200 more taps than last year, so now I’m up to 600,” he says.
Rice wants to grow the business and increase the number of taps. The sugarhouse has a 2-by-6-foot evaporator, which he considers hobby-sized, but it also has a 2-by-4-foot flue pan and eight drop flues, which means he has over 500 square inches of boiling space. With the reverse osmosis machine, he can boil an average of 40 gallons per hour, which gives him about 1 gallon of maple syrup. In the past, 300 to 350 taps would have maxed out his evaporator, but with his new reverse osmosis machine he can go up to 1,000 to 1,200 taps, which is where he wants to be.
He taps on his nearly 10-acre property, and he has taps with buckets in the red maples that line the roads near his home. Rice is considering leasing land in the area to tap. The cost for that depends on the property owner. Some want money and a little syrup, while others just want money, and the cost per tap ranges from 75 cents to $1, paid up front each year.
Rice says, “It’s an investment in someone’s property – tubing, a vacuum pump, tanks, a releaser. It’s important to set up the woods so you can get a truck in there and not have to drive too far to get it all done.”
When asked at what point this stops being a hobby, he says, “I guess if you’re making it, selling it, and at some point making a profit, that’s when it’s not a hobby. After this year, I will be well above the hobby stage.”
As of March 2014, he was completely out of syrup. Last year he made 80 gallons of syrup, and this year he had hoped to make 150. A mid-April post on the Willow Creek Sugarhouse Facebook page indicated that he made over 90 gallons. A gallon of maple syrup costs about $52 in New Hampshire. He sells his syrup at several retail spots and at a postal store in a nearby town. The store’s owner kept asking Rice for more maple syrup, as people would come in to mail packages, see the syrup, and buy some to send to friends and family. Rice hasn’t made enough syrup to be part of the farmers’ market, but he’s hoping that will change; his goal is having enough syrup to make it past Christmas. His plan is to keep making more each year.
Rice is relatively new to the sugar making world, as he’s only been making maple syrup for five years. Prior to this, he was a chef for 25 years, holding positions at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston and at Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, New Hampshire.
His wife is a doctor, so they devised a plan to enable Rice to be home with their 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
“When I became a stay-at-home dad, I built a deck, a retaining wall, and with my wife did landscaping around our house. Then winter came, and I was like, ‘hmm, now what?’ I put on a little weight because it’s not like when you are working as a chef, standing in front of a 1,200-degree broiler, standing and sweating for six to eight hours in a kitchen. I was still eating the same amount, but not doing that kind of work.”
When Rice went for an annual checkup, his physician said his blood pressure and cholesterol were both high and he would need medication. He said, “Give me six months.” That was all he needed. Rice lost 50 pounds, cut his cholesterol in half and lowered his blood pressure. He maintains his weight by eating healthy and going to the gym. During sugaring season, he often loses 10 pounds because he’s constantly busy.
Good food is important to the Rice family. They raise about 50 to 60 free-range chickens and turkeys, which he processes. Rice is also considering raising a cow or pig to produce more of his family’s food. In addition, he maintains three beehives and sells the honey. The goal is to increase the hives to eight, expanding onto another nearby property.
As the maple season winds down, Rice looks ahead to another year of possibilities, including tapping more trees and producing more syrup. Because in the end, that’s what he loves to do.