There's a special curve in the road between my Conway, N.H., home and the New England Farmers Union office in Shelburne Falls, Mass. The road leaves the plateau of fields, horse farms and old hay-filled barns and slides down the side of a mountain, cut years ago to accommodate wagons and farm products going to market. In March, the leaves are still off the trees and I can see across the great Deerfield River valley to the mountain on the other side. The High Ledges, now a Massachusetts Audubon Society sanctuary, are cut into that mountain; the villages of Shelburne Falls and Buckland meet at the base where Salmon Falls have carved glacial potholes out of hard river stone.
When I round that curve and look across the valley through the bare trees, I watch for steam rising from the Gould Farm's sugarhouse. By the first week of March, my anticipation is satisfied. Smoke and steam are rising from the roof vent and chimney, and the syrup season has begun.
Maple has been a staple crop in New England agriculture for hundreds of years, and farmers throughout the region have relied on it as supplemental income for their diverse farms. Gary Keough, New England director for the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service, told me that in 2010 over 5 million taps yielded 1,330,000 gallons of syrup with a market value of $47,902,000. Gordon Richardson, with his brother, James, and sons, are part of the reason for this success. They operate the Richardson Family Farm in Hartland, Vt. Gordon remembers hauling sap out of his father's sugar bush with horses. "Pop had 600 taps," Gordon says, "and we used buckets at the time. It was hard work, but the horses liked working in the winter, and we did too. Besides, the syrup supplemented the money we got from our dairy herd, and that income was important for the running of the farm."
Gordon and Jim not only took over their father's maple operation, they also started thinking about ways to improve it. They switched to tubing in the mid-'60s, downsized the tap size from 7/16 inch or bigger to 5/16 inch or less, purchased reverse osmosis equipment in 2008, and ultimately increased the total number of taps from 600 to 8,000. Their production has become some of the best in the state.
Along the way, Gordon noticed that the heat evaporating during boiling was a wasted resource. He and Jim started tinkering with recycling that waste steam and using it to preheat the cold sap coming into the evaporator. In 1986, he invented and patented what he called "the piggyback" (patent now expired), and achieved a 65 percent increase in efficiency with regard to wood consumption. Today, the use of reverse osmosis technology greatly increases those previous efficiencies.
The weather can throw curveballs at maple producers, just as it can for any farmer. If warming temperatures start an early run and the farmer isn't ready, he can lose the sweetest sap. The Richardsons' 400-acre farm sits on a hill, and "we don't get started early," Gordon says. "It takes us three weeks to get the taps in, and we just set our schedule to start tapping in February to be ready by the first of March."
I asked Gordon whether or not he feels impacted by government policy. He and his family are subject to food safety regulations in Vermont, and those rules come from the federal Food and Drug Administration. "The Vermont Department of Agriculture is very supportive of maple producers in Vermont," Gordon says. "It inspects the finished product but not the facilities. It wants to be sure that the syrup is graded properly." The Richardsons have recently switched to stainless steel drums, required in Vermont as of the beginning of this year. "A lot of old farmers would laugh at that," Gordon says. "They would say, 'How could there possibly be anything bad about maple syrup that has been boiled?' and they would probably be right. But we have concerned consumers to think about now, and we want them to feel safe."
New England Farmers Union (NEFU), unlike many other Farmers Union chapters, represents a region where maple sugaring is a major industry. As a result of our experience with this industry and our affiliation with National Farmers Union (NFU), we have been able to introduce policy language to the National Farmers Union so legislative staff in Washington, D.C., can advocate for New England maple producers. For example:
- Add maple products for farmers' market coupons for seniors and low-income consumers.
- Push to have maple included as a specialty crop for Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and other federal support for specialty crops.
- Increase investments in farmers markets', local and regional food hubs and processing facilities to open more market opportunities for maple and other made-in-New-England products.
- Support for federal farm energy efficiency programs like the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) to help maple producers and other farmers reduce on-farm energy use.
- Continue the Value-Added Producer Grant program to help maple producers add value beyond syrup.
- Make it easier for maple producers and other farmers engaged in value-added production to access the credit programs of the Farm Services Agency and the Farm Credit System.
Like most farmers, Gordon and his family welcome government initiatives that support their operation. Their reverse osmosis system was funded, in part, by a federal REAP grant. However, the Richardson family has been enterprising and innovative without much government support, and that Yankee ingenuity has helped them reach the level of success they now enjoy. "Our syrup is sold at the farm, in retail outlets, by mail and in bulk," says Gordon. "And syrup prices have been good the last couple of years. This also has helped balance our income from dairy, which has been so volatile. Overall, we are glad we are in the sugaring business and plan to stay there."
I plan to make the rounds in western Massachusetts this month to sample waffles, pancakes, sugar-on-snow, and other carriers for that sweetest spring treat. Along with its great taste, it brings the welcome sign that a new farming season is at hand in New England. Eat all you can and enjoy the maple harvest.
Annie Cheatham is executive director of New England Farmers Union (www.New EnglandFarmersUnion.org).