A sweet start to sugaring season

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WEST BRATTLEBORO — Maple sugaring season is arriving late this year, but there are promising signs it's going to be sweet.

Winter finally loosened its grip Thursday, and sugarmakers in Windham County reported seeing the first good run of sap. At the Robb Family Farm sugarhouse on Ames Hill Road, members of the Robb family and friends gathered to watch the debut of their new-to-them, huge stainless steel evaporator, which is expected to be much more energy efficient.

But the biggest news of the afternoon was the sugar content of the sap pouring into the evaporator.

Last year, Vermont sugarmakers made 1.9 million gallons of maple syrup, but the sugar content hovered around a disappointing 1 percent, Charlie Robb Jr. said while tending to his new equipment. The sap this week is measuring 3 percent, which sparked joy in a sugarmaker's heart. Maple sap at 1 percent sugar takes much longer - and more sap and more wood, or oil, or propane - to turn into syrup. At 3 percent sugar, the sap turns into syrup more quickly, and with a more delicate taste.

Charlie Robb Sr. has a theory on why last year's sap was so poor: in the fall of 2017, maple trees produced an abundance of seeds, and the trees' energy went into the fluttery seeds, rather than being stored for the spring's run of sap.

Helen Robb, the matriarch of the family, said their sugaring season was three weeks late, when compared to the past four years of sugaring. "We were ready on Feb. 20," said Helen Robb, who along with her husband Charlie Sr. are a key part of a four-generation Robb family operation. "We were ready, but we had to wait for Mother Nature," she said.

The key to getting the maple sap to flow is temperatures above freezing during the day, and below freezing at night. Too cold at night can be just as bad, Charlie Robb Jr. said, as he filled the arch with 40-inch slabs of wood. The evaporator sits on top of the arch, and makes the sap boil furiously on a day like Thursday afternoon, as temperatures climbed toward 50, and mud season was also starting to arrive.

Charlie Jr., said he purposely stayed with a wood-fired operation because of the availability of wood from their own land. What's more, he thinks wood-fired evaporators produce a better tasting syrup.

The Robbs invested in the new evaporator, which they bought from a dealer in Wilton, Maine, and brought it back to their farm in West Brattleboro. Charlie Robb Jr. said it will be a relief not to cut and split and stack the 60 cords of wood they previously needed to produce the 1,000 gallons of syrup. This year, he expects to burn about 25 cords of wood, a mixture of soft and hardwood.

The efficiency also means the arch doesn't need to be filled quite so often - once every 20 minutes instead of once every eight minutes, to keep the evaporator boiling.

On Thursday, Charlie Jr. and Taylor Thurber worked in tandem, drawing off the super-hot syrup and feeding it into the 14-filter press, which removes the "sugar sand" or niter from the fresh syrup. They kept a close watch on the temperature gauges, as well as the flow of sap into the evaporator. The sap had earlier been filtered multiple times in the Robb's expanded sap storage set-up next door.

Amanda Voyer, the executive director of the Vermont Sugarmakers Association, said Thursday's and Friday's warmer temperatures would jump start the season all over the state. She said the forecast for the next week or so is perfect sugaring weather. "It's the very start of the season," she said. Only a few, very large operations caught a run during the January thaw, she said.

While production was slightly down in 2018 from 2019, the number of people making syrup and the number of taps they are setting in sugar maple trees continued to climb. Vermont leads all U.S. states in maple production, producing half of the American crop. But it lags far behind Canada, she said, which produced 9.8 million gallons. According to statistics from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Food and Markets, there were only 1 million taps in the state; by 2017, the figure had climbed to more than 5 million taps.

The maple industry produces more than syrup and candy; there are 4,000 jobs that are "created and supported" by the Vermont maple industry. Both Voyer and Scott Waterman, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the number of taps is just expected to grow and grow.

In West Brattleboro, on Ames Hill Road, Charlie Robb Jr. said he expects to add 2,000 taps to their 5,500 taps, thanks to the new more efficient evaporator.

Voyer said that while her organization has about 1,500 members, she estimated that there are about 3,000 people in Vermont making maple syrup. "There are backyard boilers who tap a few trees," she said. "There's always room for expansion," she said, noting the market for all things maple is strong. The 1.9 million gallons of syrup the state produced last year, based on an average price of $27 a gallon, translates to $53.46 million for the Vermont economy.

Last week Gov. Phil Scott was joined by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for the official first tap to kick off what the state calls "Vermont's sweetest season." The official tapping took place at Georgia Mountain Maples in Milton, a 160,000 tap operation, but it was too cold for the sap to run.

Vermont's Maple Open House weekend this year will be held March 23 and 24, and the Robb sugarhouse, among many others in Windham County, will be open to the public.

For more information, consult www.vermontmaple.org/mohw.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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