I’ve always had a sweet tooth. As a kid growing up in suburban Boston, drowning my pancakes in maple syrup, I had only a vague understanding that this gold, liquid sugar came from trees. As I became more interested in the origins of food and moved to Vermont, I discovered the taste of pure maple syrup and all it takes to produce it.
The sunny days, cold nights, and delicate, earthy scent from the sugarbush mark my favorite time of year at Shelburne Farms: sugaring season. Usually lasting 4-6 weeks from late February through early April, it’s a sweet sign that the long winter is fading (really!) and spring is finally on its way.
Sugaring is an important part of our working landscape and education programs here at the Farm. It helps us maintain a sustainable and healthy forest, provides food for our farm to table endeavors, and engages people of every age – especially teachers and their students – in a process of learning where food comes from. Sugaring connects all of us to the land, our community, and the local economy.
While steeped in tradition, the maple sugaring world is not lacking in innovation. If you visit our sugarbush this year, you may notice some of these exciting changes. As part of our ongoing effort to reduce energy consumption across the Farm, we’re experimenting with reverse osmosis as a way to boost production and lower energy consumption in sugaring.
The reverse osmosis machine cuts down on boiling time by removing excess water and concentrating the sugar in the sap, generally bringing sap from 2% to 8% sugar content. (The higher the sugar content, the less sap you need to boil to make syrup!) Last year we used 8.3 cords of wood to produce 100 gallons of maple syrup; this year we expect to use just 2-5 cords to produce 100 gallons. This is exciting news, especially for Marshall Webb and Dana Bishop, who steward our green certified woodlands, harvest sustainably produced lumber for craftspeople like our on-site partner Beeken Parsons, and supply firewood for the Farm.
Reverse osmosis machines, along with the vacuum and line collection system we have used since 2011, are now commonplace to many Vermont sugarbushes and sugar houses. I have read estimates that up to 90% of maple syrup on the market has undergone reverse osmosis.
This new technology allows us to represent Vermont industries in our educational programs, including school field trips. But it poses challenges, too. Educator Christie Nold explains, “Often, as technology increases, the distance between people and food products increases as well. We want to celebrate these technological advances while still exposing students to a more ‘traditional’ sugaring method. This shows them not just how product is made, but also where it comes from.”
Our educators believe that the most impactful activity to learn about sugaring is for students to see firsthand the sap running from a maple tree and collecting in a bucket. So along with the 2.5 miles of tubing that connect 650+ taps throughout our sugarbush, we use about 50 traditional metal buckets to collect sap.
At Shelburne Farms, we are constantly exploring the balance between caring for our working landscape, optimizing production, and honoring opportunities for learning. As an organization, we grapple with big questions of how to live responsibly in the 21st century. This requires balance between honoring our traditions and embracing new tools.
We are proud to have a forestry operation as part of our working farm. Syrup and other value-added maple products are trademarks of the Vermont brand, known not only regionally but also internationally. There are only 17 states and provinces in two countries in the world, the US and Canada, that make maple syrup within the season’s six-week window,. These days, I enjoy my Saturday morning pancakes and maple syrup with a heightened sense of appreciation for the work – both human and non-human – that went into its production.
If you’re interested in learning more about sugaring in Vermont, check out the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. You can also feel free to stop by our sugarbush! You can purchase syrup at our Welcome Center & Farm Store or through our online store and check out some amazing ways to incorporate maple into your kitchen.