Smoke Signals

Despite a few tough years and looming climate change, sugaring seems poised for even better times to come.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole and Toby Talbot

Tending to the sugar bush requires year-round forestry management, as well as tending to 250 miles of vacuum tubing. Seen here in late summer: Devin, Nick, Lauren, Hope and Mark.

Tending to the sugar bush requires year-round forestry management, as well as tending to 250 miles of vacuum tubing. Seen here in late summer: Devin, Nick, Lauren, Hope and Mark.

For a few weeks in winter or early spring, a talisman of sorts rises between the trees throughout rural Vermont. It is many places at once, yet the source, hidden amongst the hills, mountains and hollers, is not so disparate. On days when the wind is relatively still, these specter-like columns, comprised of smoke and vapor, can be seen for miles, beaconing those in the know.

They drive and trek, and as these seekers near their destinations, a faint yet familiar scent of something sweet intensifies the allure and further reinforces behavior learned from parents and grandparents, many of whom visited these same sites.

As is the tradition, these visitors are welcome. In from the cold and great outdoors, they enter the confines of cozy huts, known as sugarhouses, where the senses are greeted by steam and fragrance percolating off maple sap at the boiling point, and by the warmth of friends.

“It’s kind of like a big visiting contest,” says Hope Colburn, who along with her husband, Mark, runs Colburn’s Village View Maples, a sugaring operation near Glover, Vt. “During sugaring, people here drive around town to look for the steam and smoke from the sugaring, and they go from sugarhouse to sugarhouse … to be a part of this tradition, to witness it and visit. Of course, it dates back to … ” she pauses and laughs, “till who knows, but it’s definitely part of the heritage.”

From Vermont to Eastern Canada and across the prairie’s northern tier, sugaring—which typically lasts three to four weeks, beginning as early as January and ending as late as April—has signaled the end of winter. When daytime high temperatures reach the 40s (Fahrenheit) and nights dip back down into the 20s, a pressure is created in several varieties of maple trees, forcing the trees’ sugary sap to rise and flow out of breaks in the bark, whether natural or man-made.

Natives of these regions learned to collect the sap and boil it down long before Europeans arrived. They had their own rituals surrounding its collection and transformation into syrup, yet the addition of a warm sugarhouse has certainly added to that allure for the modern-era visitor. So have doughnuts.

“We go through a lot of them during sugaring season,” says Hope. Her mom makes the sinkers by the dozens, using maple syrup from the Colburns’ sugarhouse to feed those who visit at this critical time, when a year’s worth of nature’s and man’s work gets boiled down, literally, into sticky gold. Good friends help pass the time.

A sure-footed tractor helps the Colburns check tubing during sugaring.

A sure-footed tractor helps the Colburns check tubing during sugaring.

The Colburns are native to northeast Vermont, which, along with surrounding states and provinces, produces more than 90% of the world’s supply of maple syrup. Yet, the couple, both of whom work off-the-farm jobs—Mark as a heavy equipment operator and Hope as a vice president and commercial loan officer of a local bank—didn’t get into sugaring themselves until the mid-2000s. That’s when they acted on a dream and purchased a former dairy farm that included a significant stand of rock maples. Since then, they’ve added to their acreage, on which they also grow hay for sale and maintain a herd of about 70 head of hormone-free, pasture-fed beef cattle.

Beginning with about 11,000 taps, the Colburns installed the latest in high-tech equipment from the start. Like many producers today, they use vacuum pumps and hoses that suck the sap from the trees, replacing traditional buckets and sleds that once transported sap to the sugarhouse. Now, the Colburn operation consists of 20,000 taps on 160 wooded acres—what is typically referred to as “sugar bush” by maple producers—that produce approximately 8,500 gallons of syrup in an average year.

“We’d heard sugaring was an addiction,” recalls Hope. “And it’s so true, because once we started, it was just one of those things that kept growing and growing and growing.” To help manage their “maple jones,” Hope and Mark have help from their two children, Devin and Lauren, and Lauren’s husband, Nick Baker, the only member of the team who works on the farm full time.

Addiction or not, the maple industry in both the U.S. and Canada, the largest producer, has thrived despite changing climatic conditions that have reduced the sugaring season by an average of five days as compared to 50 years ago. Production has grown well over 50% since 2008, fueled in part by rising prices. In 2012, the average wholesale price of a gallon of syrup went for $39.10 in the U.S., an increase of 28% from a decade earlier. That’s a record-high price and approximately 11 times the price of crude oil last year.

The increase in production has been made possible by a jump in the number of taps, as well as the high-tech equipment used to harvest sap and convert it into syrup. The tubing and vacuum pumps are typically part of a process that also includes large stainless steel tanks for storage and the evaporation process.

During sugaring, says Mark, everyone pitches in and do a little bit of everything. It’s a joint effort for sure.

During sugaring, says Mark, everyone pitches in and do a little bit of everything. It’s a joint effort for sure.

Then there’s the reverse-osmosis machine, or R/O. Costing upward of $50,000 or more, the R/O speeds up the process of turning sap into syrup by further concentrating the sugar content of the sap. That, in turn, saves money on the fuel needed to evaporate additional water in later stages of production.

Nick estimates there are some 250 miles of tubes running through the Colburns’ sugar bush, all of which have to be inspected constantly—oftentimes by foot over hilly terrain that’s frequently covered by snow. Temperatures that regularly dip to 20 below and lower can crack the plastic hoses, and squirrels apparently love to chew on them. The tiniest of pinholes can cause loss of suction, and lines to freeze and be obstructed.

As with so many agricultural operations, sugaring is time-intensive and subject to production pressures, says Mark. “You have to do everything as efficient as you can, whether you’re farming or making maple syrup. … Everything figures in. And to stay competitive in the business, you have to go with it. You have to keep up on technology.

“And thank goodness we have the kids here with us. Young help is key to working these new technologies,” says Mark, cutting his eyes toward “the kids.”

Adds Hope, “We feel really fortunate that we’re doing what we do. Not everyone can say that they have their family this close by. We’re lucky we have our kids here and they enjoy doing what we do. It’s nice.”

As is, she says, the time she gets to spend with neighbors during sugaring. “It’s a lot of hard work on top of our other jobs, but having company helps make it fun. We’re so glad the tradition of people visiting continues, and,” she adds with a smile, “that my mother still makes those doughnuts.”