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Sugar Rush

For generations, Vermont's wholesome family tradition of making maple syrup has kept it on our flapjacks and birds in our trees. Now, faced with modern-day threats, these farmers wonder how much longer their way of life can last.

By Jennifer Bogo

 

 

The gargantuan old sugar maple towers above the snow-covered landscape one late March morning in Vermont, its trunk a massive 21 feet around, and its thick, gnarled branches still leafless. All winter the 300-year-old tree has stood dormant. During the past few weeks, however, it has been converting its reserve of starch—produced by photosynthesis during the previous summer—to sucrose, which dissolves into sap. Nature, it would appear, has been priming for this very day: Freezing nights caused the tree to draw the sap up from its roots; then this morning the temperature rose to 44 degrees, creating pressure within the trunk and branches.

Arnold Coombs runs his hand over the shaggy gray-brown bark blotched with lichen and, finding a satisfactory spot, raises an old hand-cranked drill. He rotates the wooden handle until the bit bores about an inch and a half into the hard trunk. Fitting a grooved metal spout into the hole, he gives it a few light taps with a hammer. We watch the spout, mesmerized.

Nothing happens. And then, a drop of clear liquid slowly rolls to the tip, hesitates for a moment, and falls into the metal pail with a sharp ping. “That,” says Arnold, “is music to a sugar maker's ears.”

Arnold's father, 77-year-old Bob Coombs, nods his head in agreement. The spout is dripping like a leaky faucet now. “After 12 hours of running like that, it'll fill half the bucket,” Bob says. He should know: He's tapped this tree, too, as has his father, and his father's father, all the way back through his family to the mid-1800s. In fact, Arnold Coombs is a seventh-generation sugar maker (as maple farmers are called) on both sides.

He was in a sugarhouse before he was in an actual house, he says, because his mother stopped by to see his father, who was boiling sap, on her way home from the hospital. Arnold was tapping trees by the time he was eight. Today, as the 45-year-old founder of Coombs Family Farms, he sells 2 million pounds of certified organic maple syrup a year, which represents roughly 10 percent of his syrup business.

Six years ago he merged with another company. In doing so he's continued not only a Coombs tradition, he has also managed to remain part of a fabric of more than 8,000 U.S. farmers who are preserving maple forests, primarily in the Northeast but as far west as Minnesota. This land, from the tops of maturing maples to the shrubs that grow beneath, offers invaluable habitat to birds and other wildlife.

Warm maple syrup provides refuge for people, too, from cold winter mornings and dull bowls of oatmeal. In a world peppered with Pop-Tarts, the timeless amber topping is still a staple of American pantries. But while some things, like golden pancakes and thick slabs of French toast, will never become outdated, such modern-day threats as invasive species, acid rain, and global warming are beginning to have an effect on the maple syrup business.

As we bounce along back roads in Arnold's silver Nissan pickup, which sports a VT MAPLE license plate, the trees along our route all have one thing in common: silver buckets hanging waist-high off their trunks. These trees, like the big old patriarch we just left, have been tapped for generations.

In the 1800s, as many of the region's people moved west, abandoning land that had been clearcut for farms, the sugar maple ( Acer saccharum ) moved in, eventually providing a source of syrup, sugar, and added income to families. Now one out of every four trees in Vermont, the leading maple-producing state, is a sugar maple, and they produced a third of the country's 1.24 million gallons of syrup in 2005. Vermont's more than 2,000 maple operations, most of them family-owned, are subject to the same market forces pressuring all types of farms, from corn to dairy. “I wanted to be able, as my dad did, to make my living in the maple business,” says Arnold, his forehead furrowing slightly. “When the competition was being bought out by the really big boys [Shady Farms, Maple Groves, Spring Tree], I realized that to take it where I really thought it could go, it was going to be tough to go it alone.”

He partnered with Bruce Bascom, another seventh-generation sugar maker, who is based in neighboring New Hampshire. Their company, Bascom Family Farms, now sells syrup under three labels, including Coombs Family Farms. Besides tapping their own maple trees, they buy syrup from about 1,000 farmers. The big labels also buy from many sugar makers, but—unlike Bascom and Coombs—they don't go out of their way to help keep those farmers in the maple business. Bascom Maple Farms, one of the company's brands, has become the country's largest distributor of new and used sugaring equipment, for which farmers can barter drums of syrup instead of paying out of pocket. Each year the company holds an open-house weekend that includes seminars to teach farmers forest management as well as how to turn their maple syrup into value-added products like maple candy.

 

When we cross the Connecticut River into New Hampshire to reach Bascom's sugar bush—as maple stands dedicated to tapping are called—it's clear how production has evolved to be more efficient. Instead of buckets, blue plastic tubes form a lattice two feet above the snow, connecting maple trees like a game of cats-in-the-cradle. The taps have been bored with power drills, and a vacuum pump assists gravity in delivering sap from the spouts.

This stand is part of the company's 2,000 acres that are certified organic for the Coombs Family Farms brand. Sugar makers can charge 7 to 10 percent more for organic maple syrup, and although this can help defray the $1,000 fee for annual certification, the organic option often isn't economical for people with a small number of taps. In fact, unlike crops such as corn (the basis for most artificial maple syrups), maple trees generally aren't grown using commercial fertilizers or insecticides—the major restriction in the national organic standards. But the organic label guarantees consumers that other practices, which protect their health and that of the trees, have been followed as well. It sets standards to prevent maples from becoming overstressed, for example, by limiting the number and size of taps and the depth of boreholes. It also affects aspects of the operation involved in creating the syrup—not just collecting it—such as the chemicals used to clean the equipment and the process by which the sap is boiled and filtered.

A well-managed sugar bush, whether or not it's certified, is one that's thinned frequently—every 10 to 15 years—so that the crowns of the maples reach a healthy size, exposing more leaves to sunlight and increasing stem diameter. This boosts sap production and allows more light to reach the forest floor, which promotes the growth of a vigorous understory.

“A good deal of wildlife species make use of that understory,” says Peter Rhoades, Bascom's forest manager for 31 years and a fourth-generation sugar maker. Wood thrushes and Canada warblers, both Audubon WatchList species of national concern, nest in shrubs and ground cover, as do black-throated blue warblers and veeries. Berry patches provide food and cover for animals trying to escape raptors, and herbaceous plants offer browse for deer.

“But probably the most important benefit to birds,” says Rhoades, “is that sugar maples are almost never cut down before they're dead”—unlike forests managed for timber. “As long as they're still producing sap, we keep 200- to 300-year-old trees. Usually these have big cavities in them, and dead wood in the tops.” These snags are prime habitat for birds like pileated woodpeckers.

“Probably the most important benefit to birds is that sugar maples are almost never cut down before they're dead. As long as they're still producing sap, we keep 200- to 300-year-old trees. Usually these have big cavities in them, and dead wood in the tops.”

There's another animal that finds sugar maples excellent habitat. Arnold Coombs carries a brochure with a life-size photo of this creature, along with an emergency hotline number, in his truck. The photo reveals the telltale black body of the Asian long-horned beetle—an inch long and speckled white, with long black-and-white-banded antennae—a finely honed tree-boring machine. The modus operandi of this nonnative species, which arrives in this country in shipping crates from China, is to attack high in the tree and beeline deep into its interior. Unfortunately, the beetle causes no obvious sign of insect infestation—such as turning leaves yellow by interfering with water flow—and as a result is nearly impossible to detect early. In fact, if it were to escape from the only known infested areas in North America—Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey, and New York—and find its way to New England, it might take as long as four years to recognize the outbreak, says Michael Smith, an entomologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. “By this time,” he says, “it's too late.”

Another frightening scenario for sugar makers has been building for years in our nation's soils. Sugar maples tend to prefer deep, calcium-rich earth. When fossil fuels burn, acids form in the atmosphere and eventually rain back down to earth. As the soil acidifies, aluminum that is naturally bound up becomes soluble. The aluminum damages the trees' root tips and hinders their ability to take up nutrients. “The sugar content of sap decreases, so you have to boil away more to produce a given amount of syrup,” explains Bill Sharpe, a forest hydrologist at Pennsylvania State University, who has documented an extensive decline in Pennsylvania sugar maples as a result of acid rain. “And then because the tree's not as healthy, the sap yields generally diminish, and it ultimately dies.”

Though the deposition of sulfates in acid rain decreased after the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990—which imposed emission controls on power plants to keep sulfur dioxide in check—nitrates from nitrous oxides emitted by automobiles have not significantly declined. The situation for maples is better than it used to be, says Sharpe, but still not good enough. “We're still adding too much acid rain to allow them to recover.”

Global warming, though its effects may be more gradual, clouds the future, too. “You have to keep in mind that for many of the people who make maple syrup, it's a farming tradition,” says Timothy Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center, a field research station of the University of Vermont. “And even though there are fewer farms now, people tend to pass on the tradition through their families. They want their kids and grandkids to be able to make maple syrup, too.”

Sap production depends not only on the pH of the soil but on the daily changes in temperature that drive the sap-flow mechanism. According to the New England Regional Assessment, conducted for the U.S. Global Change Research Program in 2001, the sugaring season has been starting earlier than usual for several years running. This year the season was, on average, six days shorter, and nationwide, syrup production dropped 19 percent from 2004.

A warming trend may also increase outbreaks of pear thrip—an insect that attacks sugar maple foliar buds—and extreme weather, such as drought and ice storms, that could prove particularly damaging to already-stressed trees. In the longest-term scenario, climate models predict that by 2100 sugar maples in New England will have migrated northward, and will have been replaced in parts of their current range by other species, such as oak and hickory. Canadian maple syrup production has nearly doubled in the past 14 years, from more than 20,000 tons in 1990 to more than 39,000 tons in 2004, due to changing climate, aggressive marketing, and government subsidies. In the process, though, this has marginalized many small U.S. producers.

 

Maple sugaring season is easy to recognize by the spirals of steam rising from the cupolas of wooden sugarhouses. Trees are typically tapped in the afternoon and the sap boiled that night in long metal evaporators that concentrate it into syrup. The Spragues' sugarhouse, in Jacksonville, Vermont, is going full bore when we pull up outside.

Inside, the scent of maple hangs heavy in the air. The rustic building is not much bigger than the 5-foot-by-14-foot evaporator in the middle of the room. At one end of it stands Marty Sprague, wearing scuffed jeans and three layers of shirts despite the heat pouring out of a wood-burning arch, or firebox. Unlike more modern evaporators fueled by oil, this one has to be fed with split logs every five minutes.

Between armloads, Marty tells me he named his syrup Sprague & Son. “I did it,” he says, referring to sugaring. “So did my father, and his father. It's second nature to our son. Everybody tries to keep it part of their heritage.” Like many maple farmers, he says, he can't rely on syrup as his only source of income, so he works as a builder the rest of the year.

Above the fire, sap bubbles away on a flat rectangular pan. As the water boils off, the denser liquid turns golden and travels through partitions to the front of the evaporator. One tree produces about 10 gallons of sap a season—98 percent is water, most of which evaporates away, leaving only a quart of syrup. Marty periodically leans over to read a long glass thermometer, his dark hair curling damply under a baseball hat. When the sap reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit—about 67 percent sugar content—he allows the syrup to pour out of a faucet into a stainless steel bucket.

Each spring the Spragues boil nearly 50,000 gallons of sap into 1,000 gallons of syrup, which they sell mainly out of the storefront of the sugarhouse to people driving by on the way to their second homes. It's a Catch-22, Marty says, since these same customers are driving up the land value and pricing his family out of the sugar bush. The Spragues own only about 20 percent of the 4,000 trees they tap, and rent sugaring rights to the rest. “I had a dream that houses were everywhere,” recalls Marty, “and we had maple trees planted in little rows in our backyard, like a garden.”

His wife, Karen, stands at the counter near the door of the sugarhouse, her long dark hair pulled into a ponytail glued together, she says, from the syrup in the air. Maple invades her sleep, too. “I dreamt last night that no matter what container I put syrup in, it kept running out and onto the floor. Every bit we produced. Every container had a hole in the bottom.”

She pours different grades of syrup into Dixie cups for tasting and explains the difference in terms of the foods they complement: light, delicate “fancy” on vanilla ice cream; medium on pancakes; more robust dark on cinnamon French toast. Sampling maple syrup is as complex as wine tasting. I'm amazed how the syrup evolves from a subtle buttery flavor, the shade of Chardonnay, to the strongly maple amber I've come to expect. Then comes homemade maple butter, maple candy, maple crunchies—each more decadent than the last.

“You have to have passion,” says Karen, who takes her two weeks of vacation from a job at a local college to help out during sugaring season. “This is a lot of work in the big picture. It's nice if you can make money, but this is about more than that. It's the thing we do.”

Still soaring from my sugar rush, I am ready to become initiated into the community of maple farmers. Back at the ancient tree, Bob Coombs covers my right hand with the soft blond leather glove he wears on his own in order to help me keep the drill steady. I crank the handle with my left. “Tilt it down a little,” he instructs. “Water runs downhill.”

The rough bark is speckled with healed-over tap holes; there's no reason a healthy maple shouldn't go on producing for hundreds of years. When I pull out the bit, Bob hands me a grooved metal spout and the hammer. Again, we watch the tap with suspense. The clear drop that slides out looks for all the world like water, but—caught on the tip of my finger—it tastes faintly sweet, like the memory of flapjacks from my Grandma's kitchen table.

 

In the September-October issue, New York–based science and environment writer Jennifer Bogo reported on the newest birding trails spreading across the country.


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The forests of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York—prime sugarbush states—are home to the highest concentration of breeding bird species in the continental United States. To learn more about how maple trees support wildlife, and to request a “Birds in the Sugarbush” brochure, contact Audubon Vermont (802-434-3068; http://vt.audubon.org/).

Many maple states kick off the sugaring season with an open-house weekend for customers. This year Vermont's will take place March 24–26 (www.vermontmaple.org). Many sugarhouses, including Coombs Family Farms (888-266-6271; www.coombsfamilyfarms.com), welcome visitors year-round; most state associations of maple producers maintain a current list.

When buying maple syrup in a grocery store, make sure the only ingredient on the label is pure maple syrup (not corn syrup). Maple syrup that is certified organic will carry the green-and-white USDA seal.