Maple Sugaring

Harlows - Keeping Putney GreenApril 4, 2013

There are historical accounts from French explorer, Jacques Cartier, as early as 1540 of Native Americans tapping maple trees for sap – that is, transforming maple sap into maple syrup. It’s a golden elixir so sweet and tasty, that once imbibed you’ll never want to return to Aunt Jemima’s again.

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I guarantee it!  Maple Treats

I’ve been itching to visit Harlow’s Sugar House in Putney, Vermont, for the past few days. I knew I had to do so shortly, because sugaring season is limited to that very short period of time in Vermont where the nights are below freezing and the days are warm (by Vermont standards, that is). Once the temperatures shift, or the buds start popping on the trees, the sap slows and its quality declines. I made it to Harlow’s on one of the last days of the season. I also knew that sharing a photographic journal of boiling sap into maple syrup was a story that needed to be added to the Vermont section of this blog. Maple Syrup is Vermont – Vermont is Maple Syrup.

Maple SteamI drove north on Rt. 5 from Brattleboro on a cloudless, warm spring day. As I approached the last turn in the road before arriving at Harlow’s I was a little concerned that they may have shut down their evaporators by now. But the steam wafting from the open roof ventilator doors told me the sap was still flowing. Eureka! I met Kenny Bauer, who was faithfully tending the evaporator – the stainless steel “sap stove” that magically turns the watery sap from the maple tree into the Elixir of the Gods – as I walked in the sugar house.  It didn’t take many questions from me to engage Kenny in a long and friendly dialogue about how a modern evaporator works, what’s needed to tend it, how the sap is moved from the maple trees to the sugar house and even a short history on the Harlow farm.

But before Kenny and I started talking about maple syrup we talked motorcycles. I told him I was getting ready to ride across country on my Honda 750 to do a photo journal of the United States. That prompted him to shed his layers of sweatshirts and reveal a Harley Davidson t-shirt. Kenny’s ridden on his Harley to the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota several times.  The words printed across his chest seemed apropos to my impending journey.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Kenny grew up in the Putney area. His personal memories of Putney and working on the Harlow farm span a half a century. His historical memory of the Harlow farm spans generations through stories passed down through the Harlow family. He told me the evaporator that we stand in front of now runs on oil. The original evaporators used wood. The Harlow’s would burn 100 cords of mostly pine wood to keep the old evaporator going. Pine burns hotter. Back then the evaporator would be tended 24 hours a day. A crew of half a dozen or more men would be engaged in cutting wood, hauling it, feeding the fire and tending it in shifts 24/7 through the short but intense sugaring season. Now Kenny flips a switch on the oil burner in the morning to turn it on and does the same at the end of the day to turn it off.

But that doesn’t mean the job’s easy. Harlow’s taps an estimated 10,000 trees. They run tubing from tree to tree and use a compressor to move the sap into large stainless steel storage containers. Those containers are then moved by truck to the sugar house where the sap is pumped into another stainless steel container that keeps the evaporator fed throughout the day. Two men work full-time in the maple stand to maintain the tubing that is torn by deer, or chewed by squirrels. Those pesky squirrels!  See, that sap’s so sweet even the squirrels can’t resist!!

Before the days of stretching tubing from tree to tree, buckets were hung and sap collected on horse-drawn sleds. Sleds evolved into tractors, and tractors evolved into tubing that is now moved by compressor that feeds a container truck.  Say what you will, but I contend that tending 10,000 maple trees, moving the sap by truck, tending the evaporator and ensuring the sap is boiled to exact specifications is still darn hard work. Add to that the importance of maple syruping to the financial bottom line of many Vermont farmers, and one bad weather season can cause significant hardship as it did for the Harlow’s during the 2012 season. But as the sign inside the sugar house proclaims, “75 YEARS & FIVE GENERATIONS – [still] KEEPING PUTNEY GREEN.”

Below, traditional methods of collecting maple sap.

Sugar Pales Sugar Pales

The Harlow farm stand on Vermont Route 5.

Harlow's Store, Putney, Vermont

A truck with a stainless steel container collects sap from the maple stand (sugar bush) and fills large receptacles that continuously feed the evaporator inside the sugar house where sap is turned into maple syrup.

Truck fills sugar house containers

Sap is fed into the back of the evaporator and moves through a series of baffles at the front.

Evaporator

As the water evaporates from the sap, the steam by-product wafts through the roof ventilator doors.

Maple Steam!

Kenny tends the evaporator, keeping an eye on the thermometer that gauges the temperature of the sap in the last baffle.

Kenny tends the evaporator

When the sap reaches approximately 219 degrees, Kenny opens a valve to fill a bucket with syrup.

Reading the temperature

Dispensing syrup

The bucket of sap is then poured into a bin…

Ready to filter

… filtered,

Filters

and dispensed to a 20 gallon barrell where it’s then bottled and either sold on Harlow’s store shelves, or shipped for retail sale elsewhere. Pictured here, Don Harlow – a fourth-generation Harlow, and current owner of Harlow’s – taste tests the fresh elixir.

Taste testing

Don Harlow, owner of Harlow’s Farm, speaks satisfyingly to Kenny Bauer about the apparently sterling maple syrup season of 2013.

Don Harlow

Kenny shows me how they gauge the grade of the maple syrup – light, medium and dark amber in grade A or B.

Gauging the grade

§  More pictures from around Harlow’s  §

Harlow's store

Vermont license plates hang on the sugar house wall.

Vermont plates

Back door of the sugar house.

Back door

Harlow's and truck

A welcoming sign on the Harlow farm stand. Poster, below right, announces Jay Craven’s new movie, Northern Borders, written by Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher, which will debut at the Latchis Theater on April 10th.

Welcome to Putney

The Harlow Homestead.

Harlow Homestead

Maple Syrup!

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All content Copyrighted © Stephen Craig Tavella

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