• Tough winter for sugarmakers
    January 06,2014

    A good time at Christmas for me used to mean things like “little tin horns and little toy drums” with maybe a fast sled thrown in. I’ve reached a point in my maturity, however, when I’m glad to simply count my blessings like the big one that recently occurred right here in our Morse microcosm. Similar to January 1998, we were spared the terrible ice storm that nature has spewed all over the East.

    It started a few days before Christmas when those folks we all love to hate, Mother Nature’s gremlins, the meteorologists, began harping on an approaching ice storm. The trouble is, things have changed from the old days of “b’guess and b’gory.” Today these guys have an arsenal of satellites, Doppler radars, and electronic crystal balls half as high as the stratocumulus; they no longer speculate; they “know.”

    After our collective, “C’mon you freaking Grinches,” we all flocked to hardware stores like chickens into a corner, buying out everything from flashlight batteries to expensive generators. We knew what was coming, and here in Vermont, there was nobody more nervous than us maple sugarmakers. Maple sugarmakers face more than just a household without electricity or running water — our entire existence stands in the balance.

    Maple trees are fickle, you know. We’re all quite familiar with their “sweet” side and, when it comes to great quality hardwood for furniture or fires, they’re very dense and strong. Ironically, though, with hurricanes or ice storms, they “fold like a cheap suit.” Back in the days of my youth, our only investment in them was the cost of owning them, enough buckets, covers, and spouts to fit them with, and a sugarbush full of labor in early March. These days, however, our investment in those trees has grown exponentially with miles of plastic tubing, mainline, and thousands of specialized fittings. This stuff adds up to more than $12 per tree, “lives” in the woods year-round, and can all be rendered “landfill material” in minutes when Mother Nature takes down twigs, limbs and even whole trees.

    The day after this recent ice storm, I needed some syrup jugs from our nearest maple supply place in Morrisville. I drove my favorite way, up County Road, turning left at Maple Corner, and on to Worcester Village. Just north of Worcester, only 10 miles from our farm, the whole scene changed to a crystalline Robert Frost world with all the birch trees bowing earthward. The further I drove, other bowing trees joined the birches, poplars, ash and maples. In another world this would have been beautiful but in my mind, I could only think of one thing: my fellow sugarmakers are in trouble.

    When I arrived at CDL Maple Supply, this bleak atmosphere followed me right into the building. The attendant was engaged in a phone conversation which, I knew, even from my one-sided perspective, had a sad tenor. When he got done, he shook his head and said, “Guy was from up in Belvidere ... just put up a brand new system ... lost everything.”

    I look out at our January world as I finish writing. It’s cold — below zero cold. Our trees wear a thin coat of dry snow, not enough to bow them over. If I was out there, I’d hear an occasional “crack” similar to a gunshot. When it gets this cold, trees frozen on the inside will do that, and that’s a good sound of a Vermont winter at work. The sound of limbs and trees splintering and crashing down from a coating of ice on the outside, though, is the bad sound of winter at work.

    And speaking of “work”, it’ll be grueling for many northern Vermont maple sugarmakers in the two months ahead. Although counting my blessings that we didn’t get ice here doesn’t diminish my concern for those guys, I know they’ll get the job done. Got to, after all — in sugarin’ time, there’s nothing but the good sounds of Vermont maples showing their sweet side.

    Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.

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