By Steven Seitz
The nights have been a little too cold for local sugarers’ liking.
That was the sentiment of many during the annual Maple Open House Weekend, which took place Saturday and Sunday, March 28-29. The annual event highlights Vermont’s maple sugaring heritage and shows the curious how it’s done. This year, however, the weather hasn’t been as cooperative as it is normally.
“It hasn’t been great so far,” said Mike Doten, of the Elm Grove Farm in Pomfret. “You need cold nights and warm days, but the cold nights should be in the mid-20s. We’ve had zero to ten below. It takes time for the trees to recover.”
Mary MacCuaig of the Fullerton family’s Top Acres Farm operation in South Woodstock, agreed. “It’s coming later than in some years,” she said. “Some years, we make more maple syrup in April than in March. I hate to predict how much we’ll make. I hope we have an average year.”
Ann Rose, who owns the Green Mountain Sugar House in Ludlow with her husband, Doug, said they started boiling just as Maple Open House Weekend began. “It’s a late season, but hopefully a good one,” she said.
Both Top Acres and Elm Grove have been in the family for generations. While Top Acres has modernized, at Elm Grove they make syrup the same way they always have.
Top Acres has constructed a new sugarhouse, complete with modern sugaring equipment. “The older one didn’t have enough room,” McCuaig said. “Otherwise, it’s been the same operation since the 1930s. The farm has been in the family for four generations.”
Glenn Fullerton grew up in New York State but returned to Top Acres Farm in the 1970s. “I moved here when I was 30,” he said. “They’re not calling me a flatlander anymore. My grandfather ran the farm back then, before reverse osmosis. Sometimes we’d boil all night long.”
“I’m sleeping in the same room I was born in,” said Fred Doten, age 82, Mike’s father. “We’re making the syrup the same way we did before. I’m not much for the kind of thing with all the valves. We do it the old-fashioned way.”
Mike Doten said he revived Elm Grove’s sugarhouse after he returned home 11 years ago. He had been a corporate executive in Colorado before that. “It was time to come home,” he said.
“I’m glad to see it back,” said Fred Doten of the sugaring operation. “My grandfather had the sugarhouse out in the field. When he died, I started to sell the sap. When my son came back from Colorado, this building was an old garage. We added the old sugarhouse onto this section.”
The Green Mountain Sugar House in Ludlow is now in its second generation of ownership. Rose said she and her husband bought the business from her parents in 1985. The sugarhouse also has an extensive gift shop and a variety of other items.
Rose said using reverse osmosis has sped production up. “What reverse osmosis does is take 60 percent of the water out before we boil,” she said. “It saves energy and time.”
This season is the first since Vermont adopted a new grading system for syrup. Gone are Fancy, Grade A, Grade B, Grade C and Amber. According to the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, the reason for the new system is to make things clearer for the consumer.
“The names of each grade did not necessarily provide a meaningful description of the syrup,” according to the association’s website. “For instance, with no prior knowledge of maple syrup grades, Grade B does not mean much other than suggesting it would be a lesser quality than Grade A.”
Fancy is now “Golden Color with Delicate Taste,” or “Golden Delicate”; “Amber Color with Rich Taste” (“Amber Rich”) has replaced Grade A Medium Amber; Grade B is now “Dark with Robust Taste,” or “Dark Robust”; and Grade C, once not available for retail, is now “Very Dark with Strong Taste,” or “Dark Strong.”
“The new system makes it easier for people to figure out,” said McCuaig.
Some took advantage of the weekend to raise funds for worthy projects. At the Green Mountain Sugar House, the Make a Difference Club of the Mt. Holly elementary school held a bake sale for the Friends of Star Lake. The State of Vermont has determined that the lake is unsafe, due to invasive species and an unsafe dam. Friends of Star Lake has been raising money to stabilize the dam before the state decides to take it out and return the area to a boggy wetland.
Mandy Vellia, who teaches fifth-grade science and social studies, said the students made the choice. “Each session, the kids will pick a cause,” she said. “We’re here because we wanted to get out into the community.”
For some tourists, Maple Weekend is part of the reason to visit. Jackie Stern of New York City said her young daughter Rosie was the reason she went to the Green Mountain Sugar House.
“It was Rosie’s idea to come,” she said. “It’s our second visit. We’re back for the maple cookies with the maple cream in the middle.”