Drop by Drop

I began writing the following piece several weeks ago and never finished more than a few sentences at a clip before becoming too tired to write another word. The work on the farm is difficult, it is labor intensive and it brings with it a deep, satisfied exhaustion that is hard to explain. None of it compares to the sugaring season when we make maple syrup from the collected sap of over a thousand mature maples each year. It begins in the deepest part of Winter when the snow pack can be three foot deep or more, on snowshoes across a boulder strewn landscape that rises almost a thousand feet from bottom to top and it ends with the budding of the maples in early Spring with the final cleanup of the gear and equipment only days before the first seeds are sown. I apologize for the erratic style of the chronicle and for the often technical nature of the piece, but I thought it stood on its own despite these flaws and I wanted to present it as I wrote it, rough and unpolished.

When we first bought the farm we didn’t know anything about the maple trees. The former owner had pointed out the derelict sugar house, its roof caved in, the back wall blown out from decades of inattention, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that we would wind up making maple syrup as a crop. The farm had a reputation for it’s syrup back in the early part of the last century, its sugar house was state of the art by the standards of 1900; indoor running water, dual evaporators, a finishing room and even tin lines. To my eyes all I saw was a gloomy ruin half buried in the mountain side of the farm, what I missed were the majestic maples that clustered around it and spread upwards for almost a hundred acres, row after row of closely cropped sugar maples, two centuries old.

When you’re tapping you carry your tools with you; hammer, drill with an extra battery and a couple of 5/16” bits, ratchet tool, tie wire twister, insertion tool, 2 stainless steel ring shank nails, taps, three ways, joiners, drop unions, caps and extra wire. There’s a small torch, assorted hose clamps, ratchet strainers, flat tip screwdriver, a flat bar and Y’s. You learn to carry your a folding Buck belt knife instead of cutters or a pocket knife because it’s easier to get at. You know to take an oil stone to it every night because plastic hose cuts cleaner with a well sharpened knife. Everything is packed into a canvas slouch bag, with three outside pockets and plenty of room for everything else in the main bag. You carry the drill hanging off your right side belt loop and hammer hanging from the loop on the left side of the Carharts. I have no idea how many miles are walked in a single day, up the ravines and across boulder fields, down into the pastures on the south side of the farm and back and forth to the sugar house or the barn at least a few times a day for extra parts or something left behind. I do know that by the end of each day during the season by the time I finally shrug out of my clothes and make my way to bed there isn’t so much as a muscle left that hasn’t been worked to its limit. Sleep overwhelms, blankets and swallows me up.

It take at least four complete circuits of the maple orchard each season, one for each run; the primary inspection where each trace is followed from the end of the mainline to the very last tree at the top of each run looking for breaks, downed limbs, damage from moose, squirrel and bear. You carry a chain saw the entire way and by the end of the fifteen mile hike up and down nine separate defiles the weight of it doubles. This first look at how the runs have held up gives an indication of what to expect when the second round begins, repair of the lines. Some trees fail and must be taken out of production, others that were missed in previous years are added. Damage from dropped limbs wrecks tension lines that must be reset. Vermin with a taste for sugar will often chew through the smaller lines at the taps, the unions and even in the middle of the long runs so every step requires that you feel with your bare hand every inch on the lines for holes, cuts, splits or tears, each one to be repaired as you go, from the lowest elevation to the top. Two thousand taps requires more than forty man hours to cover in a good year, with a deep snow pack wearing snow shoes the time required can easily double. Next comes the actual process of tapping, each tree being drilled with a 5/16 bit to a depth of three inches, above your head and then each tap checked for blockage and replaced if necessary then tapped home with a hammer listening for the sound- tink-tink-tink-tonk- of the spile being driven into place. When you drill the hole you look for the white shavings of live wood beneath to emerge and when the temperature is right and the sap is flowing you stare up at the bottom of the hole until you see the bright, clear meniscus of sap, welling like a tear in a child’s eye before it exceeds the limits of the tap hole and falls, drop by crystal drop, down the rough exterior of the maple. And then you drive the spile home, tap, tap, tap, tonk- the final tone of a tap set properly. Reaching up, placing the tap into the hole, watching the first drops of clear liquid run down the inside of the line is an endlessly satisfying act. One by one, tree by tree, each trace from the top to the bottom connected in an arterial web of blue lines in grey forest.

You have to have enough containers to gather the sap and that much more for storage. We have about 600 sap buckets, most of them are the old zinc, three gallon variety with either folded or curved lids. Each year we hang them up the driveway to the house and on all the big maples that surround the homestead; the backyard, along the slope next to the sugarhouse, along the edge of the paddock. The maple orchard is tapped using mainlines, seven major runs with over two thousand taps in total. At the end of each mainline you have to collect the sap in totes, three hundred gallon food-safe polystyrene cubes surrounded by aluminum cages that can be moved with a set of forks. Besides these there are more than a dozen 55 gallon drums at the end of another group of maple runs. At the back of the sugarhouse itself there is a reservoir for holding the sap that tops out at just under a thousand gallons. We won’t even fire up the evaporator unless it’s full. We have two additional back up stock tanks, each about 325 gallons. Add to that the countless 5 gallon buckets for cleanup and transferring sap, stainless steel buckets for the hot syrup, 5 gallon storage totes to stockpile finished syrup, stainless steel stock tank, finishers, two 150 year old ten gallon dispensers, old milk buckets, glass bottles and plastic half pints, pints, quarts, half gallon and gallon containers to hold all of the finished maple syrup and you’ve got an idea of just what it takes to handle and store this precious crop.

Being alone in the woods in the tail end of Winter, when the first sounds of birds and the ever present cascade of snow melt down rock strewn runoffs is one of life’s greatest rewards. Spring, not as most people know it, but like the living world outside expresses it. Buds are swelling, skunk cabbage has begun to push from the black loam in the lowest spots, there are small black flies in some of the sap buckets, tree frogs have begun to find their voice and flocks of turkeys, thirty or more in size have taken to feeding on last years cattle pens, flipping patties to root out worms and larvae. The soil on the south side of every boulder is soft and loose, the air redolent of decay and life. I like the weight of the tools, the repetition of each act; inspecting the tree for health and vigor, looking for the old scars from old taps, making the wound and filling it with the tap. Watching the slow fall of the Sun, higher now each day, reaching westward as it falls, casting shadows on the floor of the orchard where the piles of broken branches molder in the half dark along the edge of the stream.

When all the tapping and line repairs are complete and the collection containers set in place the hard work starts. In a snowy year it’s trickier to move the totes full of sap up the steep grades back to the sugarhouse. We use the transfer pump to extract the sap from the collection tanks and move it to the carrier, mounted either on the forks of the tractor, the back of the gator or in the bed of the pickup. You can safely move 300 gallons at a time and each trip including the time it takes to get it into the stock tanks that feed the sugarhouse takes between half and hour to an hour. Collecting the sap from the buckets takes a little longer, especially if you’re working alone. If I get dry I drink from the buckets — big, slopping swills of clear, sweet maple sap that feed you as well as quenching your thirst. When I first started to do this I would try and get the bucket dumped as quickly as I could so I would waste a single drop of sap, but haste makes waste and I’d spill more over the edges of the tote than I would have lost from the spile, so I learned to take my time and focus on the pour and consider the drip-drip-drip of sweet maple tears to fall down the glistening bark, a toll tax of sorts for taking the time to collect each bucket, filled to the brim. And as each one is set back on the hook the cadence of the drops falling into the empty bucket create a syncopated timpani in the cold, empty air.

The process of turning one thousand gallons of maple sap into fifty gallons of syrup takes about two thirds of a cord of dry firewood, preferably flat slabs of well aired pine cut from the outside of the timber when we make lumber and eight hours of standing in front of a raging fire that must be fed every six or seven minutes. The hot air is drawn from the front of the arch to the double walled stainless steel chimney at the read. Between these two points the super heated air passes beneath two finish pans and the main pan, or evaporator. Within minutes of lighting the seventy five gallons of sap is brought to a roiling boil, foam rising eight inches above the surface as hundreds of gallons of water are turned into steam, concentrating the sugar solution as it moves from the intake end of the rig and moves as its density increases. The sugar content of the sap can vary widely from tree to tree and as the season progresses. Early on the trees that run first are often the biggest ones on the edge of the fields and in the open where their large crowns tipped with thousands of incipient buds draw vast quantities of ground water up through their inner bark to the end of each twig. When the ground is still frozen early in the season the sap is released when the bound gasses release as the air temperature rises above freezing. The sugars are most concentrated and when the water is boiled off the syrup emerges from the process lighter in color and flavor. Because it evaporates faster than later in the season the sugars tend to carmelize in a golden range rather than later in the season when there is more water and the concentrate takes longer to move across the pan, turning the color a deep red and increasing the maple flavor that most people would recognize. The early syrup, graded as ‘fancy’ produces the best candy and a clean, absolutely clear sugar crystal that is far superior in flavor to the kind made by cane. The fire burning in the arch must be fed constantly to maintain a constant boil in the pans. Water boils at 211 degrees, but syrup need 220 degrees, a huge leap in temperature when you’re talking wood fired.

I bought the rig from an old farmer in Boscawen. I had to dismantle the shed where it was stored in order to get it out and when I asked him why he was selling he told me he was “too darn old to keep up with it.” He watched me the whole time and having never done it before I peppered him with questions the entire time. After a while he started to add things to the deal without asking for any more than we’d agreed to — spare parts, old buckets and spiles, an ancient bit and brace with a small wooden box filled with augers. He told me about a business he had run back in the 1970’s where business men from Boston would come up to his place and stay at one of his cottages with their mistresses and before they left he’d pluck and clean a bag full of pheasants he raised in pens for them to take home from their ‘hunting trip’ as proof of where they’d been and what they’d done. He smiled at the thought of it and told me if you wanted to make it as a farmer you had to get creative, come up with a multitude of ways to bring in hard money. I could see that he was going to miss the evaporator and the annual rite of boiling, but he assured me that he wouldn’t and towards the end he even helped me with the loading of the fire bricks and stainless steel pans into the trailer. “Mebbe I’ll come up and give you a hand the first time, make sure you don’t burn your pans.” he said, but after I left his place I never saw or heard from him again. I had refurbished an old stable on the property to accommodate the evaporator and serve as a replacement sugarhouse; poured concrete floors with center drains, running water, stainless steel triple sink for cleanup, new windows. I hired a mason to set the firebricks inside the arch, a tricky job that required a specific incline for the rear end of the throat to draw the flames at a constant rate under each pan. The rig is a 1949 Small Brothers Lightning. It was well maintained its entire life and despite two warped doors to the arch, it looks and functions as if it were brand new. The quality of its construction, the clean lines of the main pan and the two finishing pans gives it an almost space age quality and if you had no idea what it was for, you’d be hard pressed to make a reasonable guess. It resembles a rectangular race car made entirely out of stainless steel and cast iron and when the fire is lit and the pans are at a full boil it transforms into a living thing, a metallic dragon tethered to the floor of an ancient building, billowing steam from the pans and a a column of grey smoke and florid sparks that spiral skyward in the inky black of a late Winter sky.

One evening after night had fallen, we clambered down out of the woods, treading as carefully as we could in the darkness, carrying out tools and bags full of taps and connectors. The sky was littered with stars and the milky smear of constellations and to the west the sliver of a new moon appeared like a smile in the evening sky. I sat down on a fallen tree at the edge of the pasture and rolled my head back as far as my neck would allow and stared up into the void, picturing the constellations as the ancients must have seen them, the never ending sound of sap falling into a hundred buckets up and down the stream edge, the cold rattle of ice melt flooding the brook. I watched until tears rolled down my cheeks from the cold and as I blinked them away I pulled myself up and headed back to the house, worn out, sore but as happy and satisfied as I had ever been before.

We boiled our first thousand gallons in the afternoon, stuffing dried wood into the mouth of the furnace every few minutes and drawing off boiling amber syrup in two gallon pails every twenty minutes or so. The flavor was like butterscotch, the air of the sugarhouse redolent with sweet caramel. Outside the doors the dogs curled themselves into furry spirals in the snow and every once in a while my wife would come out with mason jars filled with ice water to quench out thirst. In the six years we’ve been doing this the process has gotten more streamlined, and the production more consistent with each season. The magic hasn’t abated a bit though, the transformation of the clear sweet maple sap into hundreds of gallons of viscous syrup in colors that change as the season progresses; lemon yellow, amber, blood red, mahogany. The work hasn’t gotten any easier, the tapping and tubing and limbing and cleaning. Gathering the twenty cords of firewood and stacking and stoking it, the emptying of a thousand brimming buckets that fill themselves over and over, a cross between Sisyphus and the Sorcerer’s apprentice, the cleaning and polishing and scrubbing of the pans and the pails and the bottles and cans, the washing and the sanitizing, the bottling and the labeling, the power washing and the rinsing, day after day, twelve, fourteen, eighteen hours at a clip in either the freezing cold or the searing heat in the front of the arch that reaches 150 degrees for eight hours at a clip. It is a labor of love, a ceaseless and slavish devotion to the first crop of the year and its successful completion, whether a great year or a bust. The work is constant and unremitting — there are no bailouts, no government assistance or insurances to cover loss, no free labor, no gimmes, no freebies. You put in the work and bear the cost and if it works out you break even and if it doesn’t you eat the loss and hope for a better yield next year. It is the tradition that counts, the one form of agriculture that can never be industrialized, never taken over by robots, never outsourced to another country, never duplicated. It is something that draws you in and every person who has ever come up to the farm to stick their head inside the sugarhouse when we’re boiling breaks out in a smile and every sip from every vintage is as sweet as the first one you’ve ever experienced. It never gets old. And in many ways it’s a lot like a life well lived; difficult at times, heartbreaking at others, but immeasurably sweet and rewarding, filled with memories and ties to the past and the hopes for the future, and all of it coming from the source of life itself, one drop at a time.

Post Script: The season has been sparse although it is not quite over. This morning there was a snowfall that covered up all the worn out spaces and mud covered ruts in the landscape and though it will likely be gone by afternoon, this morning it is a blank slate out there, clean and open. If the above tale interests anyone at all in trying some of the syrup we’ve produced I encourage you to contact us to order some today. This is not a subtle suggestion, but an in your face plea to help us continue this tradition for one more season by your support. I can promise you that the product we deliver will be as sweet and flavorful, as unique and wonderful as any other agricultural product you are likely to encounter in your lifetime. There are a myriad of health benefits and uses of this spectacular product that go beyond the traditional pancakes and waffles meme and I will share any suggestions and recipes freely at your request. You can make your friends a spectacular Maple Manhattan or a Rock Maple Martini at your next cocktail party and enthrall your guests with a recounting of just what it took to concoct the delicious potion they’re about to imbibe by reading a passage of this essay out loud, like a I do whenever anyone makes the mistake of accepting a dinner invitation to the farm. If you live within driving distance of our farm I encourage you to stop by and visit and allow me to take you on a tour of the maple orchard and the sugarhouse as long as you buy a gallon or two of the latest production, whether Fancy, Medium Amber or Grade B Dark. I am always available to fill your order or answer any questions you may have,


Hardscrabble Farmer

Orders can be placed by email at merceroak@hotmail.com or you can speak directly with the hardscrabble farmer himself by calling 603-748-6917 or drop us a card or letter:

Hopewell Farms
3 South Road
Newbury, NH 03255

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