It only takes a few nights after the last frost for the grass to shake off the cold. The spikes rise up from every beaten down tuft and hummock as if armies were being raised across the landscape, emerald green spears held aloft against the dew. The chickens come out earlier now in the dim light of dawn and wander in wide arcs across the lawns with their beaks down plucking at the thatch before moving on to wherever it is they are going. One by one the birds sound off in a roll call; robins, red necked grebe, sandpipers fifty miles from their summer home, Clapper rail and chimney swift, Say’s phoebe and the red-eyed vireo — one after another.
The sky has been clear for two days and with it the ground has taken as much moisture as it could extract from the last drenching rain and responded with an equal level of growth, unchecked, burgeoning. The side of the eskar was gray only last week and this morning it is draped in a cloak of little blue-stem and fox-tail barley. The forsythia broke in a riot of canary yellow, paler this year than last but dropping under the profusion of blossoms that crowd every branch from the roots to the tips. The lilacs are swollen at every bud ready for one more day above seventy degrees to split apart and deliver their scent the entire length of the driveway whenever a breeze stirs. The rock maples are blurry with chartreuse blossoms and along the lower fields where Andrew Brook winds its way southward the edges of the soft maple look like pink lace against the silver arms of the birches.
I was born in this time of the year and so I have an affinity for it, always have. As brief as it is there is familiarity in it that always makes me smile. Spring, resurgent, unchecked and implacable. It takes from the soil what it wants, drinks deeply of the dying winter and builds upon itself in every sense — the sounds of life, the riot of color, the explosion of life from the grey and black of the year that has passed behind it — all of these things woven together in a symphonic arrangement that lifts up every heart no matter how bitter and old. We let the feeder hogs out of the pen and took them for a forage up into the back forty. They ran and kicked up their heavy legs as if they’d been invited to a dance and we tagged along behind them for an hour while they rooted and explored. The cows are swollen now with unborn calves and they bawl incessantly whenever they see us moving around the periphery because they want out so desperately to walk again on the malachite turf just beyond their reach and tear at the clover and orchard grass with half closed eyes until they are drunk with it. The dogs have taken to sprawling on their backs in their old haunts, the half dug pits under the shade trees, at the edge of the hill, and the base of the Carpathian walnut tree where old dogs are buried when they go. Ticks have shown up on the dome of their heads and on our pant-legs so we check whenever we come in to make sure we are clear.
The last of the syrup has been shipped and the results of all of our hard work has begun to flood back in. The way we work it is to send the syrup out at our own expense with an invoice in the box — the honor system, like we use for eggs on the farm. When the package arrives the recipient send back a payment for the syrup and the shipping. We tried it last year, not as an experiment, but because we simply didn’t have a processing system for credit cards and I didn’t feel right about accepting payment in advance. If something happened to me, if we received more orders that we had syrup to send, those kinds of things made me reluctant to use any other system. Besides that we were committed to the idea that you get back what you put out in the world. You send out negative vibes, you reap them in bushels. We have made it our purpose to place our trust in the better nature of man because the evidence suggests that there are far more good people than those who would take advantage. Our experience since we began this lifestyle has been overwhelmingly supportive of that belief. What we didn’t fully understand was the effect that it would have that went beyond the pure economics of our choice. It is almost impossible to figure out the true cost of the production of maple syrup because of the human labor involved. I don’t clock in when I start my day and I don’t keep time cards to record my activities each day, I just get up, go out there and put in as much time and effort as my body allows and then quit for the day. Maple production begins in January with the walking of the lines, and it doesn’t end until the last bottle has been shipped. The number of steps between those two activities I have written about before, — here — and I won’t belabor the point again. It is done for reasons beyond the income it brings and those have to do with keeping a tradition alive as well as maintaining skill sets that will never be taken over by an industrial model or advanced robotics regardless of what the experts may say. It allows for us to bring in the new season, to work off that stored winter fat in preparation for the upcoming work of planting, grazing and haying. It gives us an opportunity to share something very unique and very precious with people all over the country who care about this kind of lifestyle and to have them respond to our efforts with a contribution of their own. What we have learned from this effort has been as eye-opening as any other revelation we’ve had in that it has revealed a great deal about people we have only spoken to on the phone or by way of cards and letters. For every dollar we invoiced we received back $1.10. Several payments included a rounding up and others a little extra for the writing I’ve been doing. Over 75% of all our payments included a card, a note or a letter with inspiring words about the syrup, about the stories we’ve shared, about their own little slice of heaven and how they get through this life with equal measures of hard work and earnest intensity. 10% of the responses included homemade treats like hand ground spices, soaps, honey, jam, wine and knitted socks. One package was a pair of work gloves in response to something I’d written a while back about my torn up hands asking me to be careful in the future. Virtually every single check had words written in the memo line about how much they enjoyed the syrup and 20% were requests for a re-order next year. The orders went to 43 states and three different countries and not one person complained about the cost for shipping or the syrup. One order went to a top tier celebrity in Hollywood, another to one of the most influential political figures in the past election cycle (a Democrat, if you can believe it) and at least a dozen to other farmers which made me extremely proud. I took a lot of phone calls and had so many great conversations that changed the course of those days I can hardly account for the value. Half a dozen people came up to the farm to pick up their orders and I delivered two myself and in each of those cases there was a nice meal and a pleasant visit besides the exchange of goods for money. I was even able to come up with enough orders through one of my favorite blogs to make a decent contribution (Thanks Jim, for all the support, your syrup and a check is going out this week!). In the end we proved a number of things about the value of an economic model that has long fallen out of favor in the USA, the honor system. It pays back more than it bills, its customers express a sincere and deep appreciation for the product, it promotes honesty and trust between the producer and the user and it allows for a small operation like ours to commit to another year of keeping at an effort that has roots not only in the soil, but in the past as well. If I failed to say it to any one of you, let me say it now, thank-you for supporting this farm and our family, we deeply appreciate your contribution.
This morning our oldest son will be heading back home with three college students who will be working on the farm for the summer as interns. I can only imagine how much we will be able to accomplish with that kind of labor force and I look forward to sharing with them everything we’ve learned since we’ve been at this, especially the way that every harvest is tied to the effort behind it. We will cut and split wood, install new fences and tap lines, cut and bale hay, slaughter and butcher beef and chickens, build sheds and repair equipment. We will work together not only on the farm, but on the bigger picture, on the things that really matter — new skills, relationships, and values that stand the tests of time. And I plan on telling them the story of our maple syrup sales project and planting the seeds of a different kind, the type that produce for years to come, rising from the decay all around us.