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Sugarhouse Operation a Sweet Job : But 12-Hour Days Make Syrup Boiling No Honeymoon

Times Staff Writer

Kathryn Palmer, 75, and her 78-year-old husband, Everett, have been in their sugarhouse every day for the past six weeks from sunup to sundown.

“You’ve got to get up and at it, and go boil that sap as fast as you can the same day it’s gathered. That’s what makes good syrup,” Kathryn Palmer says.

The Palmers have been making maple syrup all 54 years of their married lives. It’s hard work. “It gets in your system. We both love to do it,” Everett Palmer says.

Spring is sugaring time in Vermont, where age-old methods of tapping trees and evaporating sap still persist, to the delight of pancake lovers the world over. Maple syrup is a $13-million annual industry in Vermont, America’s maple syrup state, accounting for more than one-third of U.S. production. From February until the end of April, clouds of steam swirl from wooden sugarhouses dotting the length and breadth of Vermont.

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Four young hired hands collect sap each day from five-gallon buckets hanging on 2,800 tree trunks at the Palmers’ Sugar Bush maple tree orchard. They pour the sap into the wood-fired evaporator in the Palmers’ sugarhouse.

Kathryn tends to the boiling, siphoning off the syrup at the precise moment. Everett hurls heavy logs into the blazing evaporator throughout the day.

They keep at it for 10 to 12 hours a day and will continue until they’ve finished “sugaring off” for the season.

The Palmers produce between 700 and 800 gallons of maple syrup a year. This year they are charging $21 a gallon. They sell their cans and jugs of syrup to nearby stores, as well as shipping the product to customers as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and West Germany.

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“People hear about us through word of mouth and by a brochure we send out,” explains Palmer. Palmer Maple Syrup Co. is one of about 3,000 maple syrup companies in Vermont, all but a handful of them small family operations.

Inside the quaint sugarhouses, maple makers boil the colorless sap to draw out the syrup. The sap looks like and tastes like water with no hint of sweet maple syrup flavor. It drips from spigots placed in holes drilled into trees. Most trees have one tap, some two and a few three.

Sugar maple tree sap is 97.5% water, 2.5% syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of amber-colored 100% maple syrup. An average tree yields only enough sap each season to produce one quart of maple syrup. Surprisingly, it takes about 40 years before a maple tree begins to produce enough sap to have commercial value.

“This will be a banner year for maple syrup,” predicts Everett Willard, 65, of the state’s Agricultural Department, who is affectionately called “Mr. Maple Syrup” by the 3,000 syrup producers in Vermont and the state’s official syrup expert.

Trend to Natural Foods

“Prices are up 15% to 20% over last year,” Willard says. Reasons for the increase include a bigger effort than usual by the state and producers to promote maple syrup this year. “And, people in general throughout the country are buying more and more natural foods,” he adds. Willard points out that 100% Vermont maple syrup has no additives, no coloring and no preservatives.

Vermont produced 530,000 gallons of maple syrup in 1984. New York state was a distant second with 332,000 gallons. Other syrup-producing states are New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Maple syrup is produced only in the United States and Canada. It’s a legacy from the American Indians, long before Columbus discovered America, who tapped maple trees and boiled the sap to make syrup. There are trees tapped by Indians more than 500 years ago that are still producing.

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Many maple syrup makers like David Marvin, 37, owner of Butternut Mountain Farm in Johnson, Vt., have modernized their sugaring operations. Instead of buckets hanging from trees, Marvin has 150 miles of plastic tubing linking 11,000 trees, from which he turns out 4,000 gallons of syrup every season.

The tubing runs from trunk taps, feeding into bigger lines and on to storage tanks. It is a combination gravity-flow and vacuum system. The vacuum pump doesn’t suck the sap from the tree but lowers the atmospheric pressure in the tubing. That enables Marvin to increase production in the early morning and late afternoon when colder temperatures would normally reduce or stop flow.

Temperatures Crucial

“We say we have our feet in the oven and our head in the icebox,” Marvin explains. Temperatures are crucial. For the sap to flow, the temperature must drop to below freezing at night and warm up to at least the high 30s and 40s during the day. “In a good year we will have eight to 10 excellent runs,” he says.

Marvin uses fuel oil, not wood, to heat the evaporator in his sugarhouse. With his production, he says, it would take 140 cords of wood and six men to keep the fire going all season.

“Making maple syrup is a joy we look forward to each year,” says Arthur (Joe) Packard Jr., 58, as he tosses logs into his sugarhouse evaporator and his wife, Emily, checks the boiling syrup for proper viscosity.

“Sure, it’s long hours and hard work. It takes me two months just to cut 50 cords of wood in preparation for sugaring. Then it’s 12 hours a day for a six-week non-stop stretch in the sugarhouse. But it’s something we’ve grown accustomed to. We’ve been doing this since we were kids.”

Packard Family Maple Products Co. in Essex Junction makes 1,000 gallons of maple syrup a year. At $20 a gallon, the price they are charging this year, the Packards figure they will gross $20,000.

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Bruce Marvin is asking $21 a gallon this year. Inside his Butternut Mountain Farm sales office is a sign that reads: “If you had to climb the mountain, tap the trees, haul the sap, cut the wood, stoke the fire, pack the syrup to comply with the nation’s only strictly enforced maple law, how much would you ask for a gallon of 100% pure Vermont maple syrup?”


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