Sweet Tradition

With our rich tradition of sugaring and an abundance of sugar maples, Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States despite its small size. The alchemy of turning watery tree sap into sweet, sticky sugar predates colonial settlement and is still important to Abenaki of Vermont and beyond. “Old ways” of sugaring are carried on by stalwart Vermonters with draft horses and buckets, yet this picture is no longer common.

Keith Armstrong, an owner of conserved land in Pownal and Bennington, has continually adapted his maple business as times have changed. He makes a living off of a 200-acre sugarbush and some river-bottom fields where he grows sweet corn and pumpkins on a farm that has been in the family since 1868.  Keith remembers hauling buckets of sap each spring in his youth; is family would boil it in a metal pan over an open fire without a hydrometer in sight.

While Keith still puts out a few buckets so that his grandchildren can experience tradition, his operation has grown substantially since its start in the 1970s. Thoughtfully planned tubing spans the steep sugarbush. Sap runs down these lines into the sugarhouse, where the sugars are concentrated by an efficient reverse-osmosis machine and then quickly boiled down in a Steam-Away evaporator. Once his family produced a gallon of syrup per hour, now he makes 40 gallons an hour. “I’ll never stop learning,” he says. “You never know how things are going to evolve, so you have to be trying something new.”

Maple’s importance to Vermont’s economy is unquestionable. In 2013 alone, the industry supported around 3,000 full-time jobs and surpassed $300 million in sales. Syrup production has quintupled: growing from 290,000 gallons in 2001 to 1.4 million in 2015. What was once a seasonal pastime is now often a year-round occupation. “I dreamed when I was 14 of making my living entirely off the land,” Keith says. “To be doing that now, every day—it’s a dream come true.”

In the woods, Keith allows for a range of tree species, sizes and ages to grow because he knows that a monoculture of maple is a threat to the long-term viability of the sugarbush. Oak, ash, and beech trees provide autumn forage for bear, turkeys, and deer, a benefit to hunters like Keith’s family.

 “Having some variety in your sugarbush is important,” says VLT forester Pieter van Loon. “Diverse sugarbushes are more resilient to insect and disease damage, and will be more productive in the long term.”

In Westfield, at the far-northern end of the state, Jacques and Pauline Couture (below) also demonstrate diversity in their land-based lifestyle. In addition to running Couture’s Maple Shop and B&B, they raise organic dairy cows and a few grass-fed beef cattle on their VLT-conserved land. “The maple uses the part of the farm that the dairy doesn’t need, so it’s a very complementary situation, as it is on quite a few other farms,” explains Jacques.

With the recent entry of some large-scale bulk-syrup operations in Vermont, producers in the small and medium range have concerns about being able to compete. But so far, mid-sized businesses are co-existing with their industrial counterparts. Advancements in equipment mean that each gallon of syrup requires less input of time, energy, and money. Some sugar-makers, both new and old, are scaling up their operations in a big way.

The Coutures felt they were at a large scale when they reached 7,500 taps several years ago. “But now that sounds so little; there’s been such growth in the industry, and a lot of it has happened in segments of 20,000 to 100,000 taps,” says Jacques.

Dave Marvin of Butternut Mountain Farm has a 600-acre sugarbush and buys from wholesalers across the state. Altogether, his family’s business handles more than half of the Vermont syrup crop.

Dave sees the benefits of more well-managed sugarbushes in Vermont. “In sugaring, we can maintain forest canopy and biodiversity, have a positive impact on water quality, and sequester carbon,” Dave explains. “We can leave trees important to birds and raptors, almost mimicking old growth forest.”

Pieter agrees, and stresses the importance of siting them in places they would naturally occur. “If sugarbushes are in places where maples thrive, they can be managed well,” Pieter explained. “When non-maple sites get converted to sugarbush, you lose important natural resources and productivity will likely be low.”

Many of the producers that sell to Butternut Mountain Farm have conserved their woods with VLT. The Marvins too have conserved their home farm and sugarbush in Johnson (pictured above). Sugaring and conservation make a sweet match, since both aim to keep forestland forested in a way that supports wildlife, water quality, and Vermonters’ livelihoods all at the same time.

For all the changes, the modern sugarbush retains the natural and cultural heritage of Vermont. Both Keith and Jacques are now tapping trees that were no wider than a soda can in their youth. Inheriting an intimate knowledge of the woods and then passing it on to the next generation is a Vermont value that cannot be captured in economic data.

“My grandfather always told me, you’ve got to leave the land better than you found it,” Keith remembers. He relays this message on to his grandson, Connor, who works alongside him in the sugarbush and plans to carry on the business into the future (pictured, top).

This article originally appeared in the Vermont Land Trust’s 2018 Winter Newsletter. Story and photos by Sophi Veltrop.