During Maine Maple Sunday, the line of visitors stretched out to the road at Gile's Family Farm in Alfred, Maine.
Photos by Cynthia Tokos.
When you think of Maine crops, what comes to mind - lobster, or maybe blueberries? How about maple syrup?
Lyle Merrifield is president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. "For a number of years, Maine and New York have tied for second in the country for maple syrup production," he notes.
Information from the Maple Syrup 2012 report from the New England field office of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service shows that in 2012, Maine and New York accounted for 19 percent of the country's maple syrup production. This translates into 360,000 gallons.
In New England, Maine again placed second, accounting for 29 percent of the production, only to be outdone by Vermont at 61 percent.
However, this is an article about Maine, specifically the Maine Maple Producers Association's Maine Maple Sunday, held each year on the fourth Sunday in March. This year marked the 30th anniversary of the event, and according to Merrifield it was the high point of several years past as it drew record crowds. "It helps bring Maine's maple to the forefront," says Merrifield. "Other
states have had such events, but no one as long as we have."
Stephen Gile partnered with Frank Boucher to purchase the family farm. At the farm, vegetables grow in the summer, orchards produce fruit in the fall, Christmas trees are sold in the winter, and maple syrup is made in the spring. Everything produced on the land is sold at the farm's retail store.
This year, over 100 sugarhouses from 15 counties participated. Although there is no hard data on the number of visitors, it's estimated to be in the tens of thousands, with the majority of them coming from Maine.
A map of Maine's participating sugarhouses - from as far north as Easton, south to Lyman and all points between - remains on the website (http://www.mainemapleproducers.com/maine-maple-sunday-map.html).
Gile's Family Farm Sugarhouse and Brookridge Boilers, located in southern Maine's York County, took part in the event.
Visitors at Gile's Family Farm get a sample of the maple syrup during Maine Maple Sunday, held every year on the fourth Sunday in March.
Gile's Family Farm
With clear blue skies, warm temperatures, and just enough snow on the ground to show that winter wasn't completely gone, a line of people waited to get into the Gile's Family Farm Sugarhouse.
Located on Shaker Hill Road in Alfred, Maine, the farm has been part of the Gile family for over 200 years. In 2000, Stephen Gile and Frank Boucher bought the farm from Gile's father and three brothers.
This sign points the way to Gile's Family Farm, just one of 68 sugarhouses that were open to the public for the 30th annual Maine Maple Sunday event.
At the four-season farm, vegetables grow in the summer, orchards produce fruit in the fall, Christmas trees are sold in the winter, and maple syrup is made in the spring. Everything grown on the land is sold at the farm's retail store, including just about any type of maple product.
Gile and Boucher have approximately 100 acres of sugar bush. About 60 percent of the sap comes in from vacuum-sealed pipeline; the remaining 40 percent is from roadside buckets, for a total of about 3,000 taps.
Using her grandmother's recipes, Suzanne Guillemette makes maple products by hand, and they sell out every year.
For many of the folks waiting in line, this wasn't their first time visiting the farm. Gile stood at the sugarhouse entrance, shaking hands, answering questions and explaining how they make maple syrup. Using a sap hydrometer, he showed how it determines the sugar content in sap, and noted that it takes 43 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup with a 0.02 percent level of sugar.
Gile said, "People are always surprised it takes so much sap to make maple syrup. Sometimes it's 43 gallons; the day of the event it was 52 gallons. That's a good thing about Maine Maple Sunday. It not only helps sell maple products, but it [also] educates people about maple production."
Greeting people as they moved into the tasting part of the tour, Boucher and his family offered visitors a taste of maple syrup. Boucher said it was a good crowd, with over 2,500 people coming through the sugarhouse. "It's all weather-dependent," he noted. "It was a long winter, and people were ready to get out of the house."
Boucher and Gile both said that Maine Maple Sunday is a family event, with many of the same people coming through every year. Boucher said, "People visit three to four different sugarhouses and have the route planned out in advance. They come from all over New England, including the Boston area. It has been a great event for us, since visitors have more than doubled since 2003."
Suzanne and Richard "Rick" Guillemette make up the team behind the Brookridge Boilers. Their sugarhouse is located on Route 111 in Lyman, Maine.
On Maine Maple Sunday, cars lined both sides of the road, and a sign advertised an "all-you-can-eat 4-H pancake breakfast."
Suzanne Guillemette said maple syrup is in her blood. Like her grandmother and great-grandmother, Guillemette makes all her maple products by hand, and every year they sell out. Her maple recipes are all from her French-Canadian grandmother. "She did everything homemade; I have fond memories of those times," Guillemette said.
This is the Guillemettes' 11th season participating in Maine Maple Sunday. "It has been the best crowd ever," she said. "Probably a couple of thousand people, nonstop from early morning. This is a very important part of what Maine is all about. People plan their day and hop around. It's a family event."
As part of Maine Maple Sunday, Brookridge Boilers hosted an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.
The Brookridge Boilers have 850 taps, which never seem to be enough. The highest they will go is 1,000. They use 600 buckets, as they want to keep the process as old-fashioned as possible. Guillemette is a fourth-generation sugar maker. It's important to her and her husband that their family be involved, so both daughters, 6-year-old Isabelle and 13-year-old Gabrielle, help collect the sap. Their 21-year-old son, Richard II, has also been part of this effort, but is currently in the service in Hawaii.
Rick built the sugarhouse in 2003 in below-zero weather.
Richard Guillemette seen through steam from the evaporator at Brookridge Boilers.
Guillemette said, "I never thought it'd happen, as we didn't have a big sugar bush in the area. We have 5 acres here. We travel to three towns - Lyman, Alfred and Arundel - to tap other front yards with trees. The sap that comes out of these trees is so sweet because they're true sugar maples."
The Guillemettes start putting buckets out in the latter part of February and boil around the first part of March. Their goal is to be in the sugarhouse through early April.
Guillemette said, "The sugarhouse is so full of life." That was evident the day of Maine's maple event. People packed the sugarhouse to look at the evaporator, to ask Rick questions, and to buy some homemade maple products, including maple syrup, lollipops, maple roasted mixed nuts, maple creme and tire d'érable, or tire. Guillemette is proudest of the tire recipe, and says that people come from all over to buy it at the sugarhouse, as they can't get it anywhere else.
In essence, it's sugar on snow, but this is a canned version in mason jars, made using her grandmother's recipe. And making it takes Guillemette back to her childhood.
At Brookridge Boilers in Lyman, Maine, the whole Guillemette family is involved in the maple operation-6-yearold Isabelle, 13-year-old Gabrielle, Suzanne and Richard. The oldest child, 21-year-old Richard II, also helps out, but is currently in the service in Hawaii.
Maine Maple Sunday 2014
The date for next year's event is set for Sunday, March 23. This has always been a one-day event, but Merrifield said it has become so popular that in the future it may extend to two days or become a weekend event. However, it will continue to be held on the fourth Sunday in March.
Some things, like the great taste of Maine's maple syrup, must stay the same.
The author is a marketing consultant, freelance writer and documentary photographer.