To Wood or Not to Wood?

Stannard Farm maple syrup has always been wood-fired. This mostly started out as a pragmatic decision on John’s part. When he and Carol (my in-laws) moved back to Vermont from Alaska to start a farm and a family, they settled on John’s father’s land. Some of the money they’d amassed over a couple of years of working hard and living small went towards a sugarhouse and an evaporator. With nothing but trees in sight, and the nearest oil reserve many miles away, it made sense to use labor and land to make the syrup.

Over the years, this has become more than a pragmatic decision. In the face of a diminishing labor force (read, kids grown up and grandkiddo still to young) John was considering converting to an oil-fired evaporator. After much conversing (and believe me, farmers can converse – talking is pretty much a crop), Travis and John did decide to ramp up the sugaring operation but remained committed to woodfire. New sugarhouse, vacuum pump, reverse-osmosis machine, and new efficient arch, but no oil in sight.

So what were the underlying factors? There is some pragmatism still – Travis and I are around regularly to help out and we intend to turn James into firewood labor as soon as possible (what’s the minimum age for chainsaw use?). Oil continues to not be a Vermont crop. And being certified organic means that we need to have a sustainable forestry plan for the sugarwoods. Between culling old trees and maintaining health and biodiversity in the sugarwoods, we’ll be doing some level of wood-cutting anyways.

But more than that, Stannard Farm has a vision of what maple syrup production should look like, and what maple syrup should be. Linked to the past and traditional methods of production, steeped in the land and inextricably bound to the ecology of the mountain, and tasting as good as it should. For us, that meant that continuing to be wood-fired was not a choice, it simply was.

There are some arguments that can be made against wood-fired. Woodsmoke is not completely clean, it does release some particulate matter. However, burning dry seasoned wood is cleaner and hotter than burning wet green wood so there are gradations of particulate matter released, and the newer evaporators have what amounts to a catalytic converter in them, burning as much particulate matter as possible before the woodsmoke leaves the evaporator and hits the sky. Clean air arguments don’t really hold up here.

Skidders and hydraulic wood-splitters do, of course, require oil to run. More or less oil than a tanker going up the steep 1/2 mile drive? Also a tough call. There are varying degrees of damage here, but the more people on the family farm to take labor away from machines the lower the fuel consumption. There are also horse-powered firewood options in Vermont (really, I cannot love this state any more than when I see flyers at the Willey’s store in Greensboro advertising horse-powered logging). I have grand dreams of eventually getting horse-power on Stannard Farm, but that’s a decade or two away.

Firewood work is hard on the body. I do feel a twinge of guilt when I realize that some people have chosen oil because they are older and not up to the task of cutting down trees, bucking up the wood then splitting it, stacking it, and throwing it on the fire regularly. But farming is hard work, and maybe that’s the way it should be. It reminds us that the products we literally consume, products that sustain us, deserve our labor and our sweat. Slowing down and scaling back to keep a farm manageable at the labor-level seems to me to be a wise economic decision. And integrating family as labor both reduces labor costs and passes along knowledge of and investment in the land.

Of course, there are many other tangents we could travel along here in terms of passing along the family farm, affordable health care, taxes for agricultural land, challenges of marketing, fixed incomes… and these are valid tangents. But I don’t think we are adequately addressing those issues by using non-sustainable and too-large-scaled energy sources. When instead we decide that wood is the right energy source for syrup production we begin to know the land better through firewood, we begin to appreciate the year-round steps it takes to enjoy maple syrup, and we establish a strong labor ethic as an integral part of our syrup system. These are qualities that we need to cultivate in order to address the rising issues of food and farms in the U.S.!

The last point we considered in deciding whether or not to use an oil-fired arch or a wood-fired arch is taste. There are two factors that we think play in here. First, oil creates a uniform and even source of heat all along the bottom of the syrup pan. Wood-fire, on the other hand, is by nature uneven and unpredictable. There’s no telling where the hottest parts of the pan are, and they change location and temperature during boiling. This creates pockets of more caramelized sap within the syrup pan that, by the end of the boil, mix throughout the syrup and develop more complex flavors.

Second, oil-fired boils usually go faster than wood-fired boils. I guess you can turn down the temperature gauge on the oil, and you can certainly fire up the woodfire, but by and large oil-fired evaporators boil sap into syrup more quickly. The slower time over the woodfire allows the sap to develop more flavor and more color. As an easy caveat, I would beware any large-scale produced maple syrup of the lightest colors; their flavors are only one tiny step above corn syrup in my (unapologetically opinionated) opinion.

As committed to wood-fired as we are, we know we are in the minority. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the maple syrup industry in Vermont, and in the U.S., is coming to a crossroads. We are in the process of changing our grading system, Vermont’s density standards might change (more density, more sugars in the syrup), alterations in climate might in turn alter the map of sugaring, and every year more syrup equipment mechanizing the steps of production is sold. The most frustrating thing to watch as a sugarmaker is people turning away from white sugar and towards maple syrup in the hopes of buying more locally and feeding their families with more integrity but to know that they are doing so in a vacuum without having readily available information so that they understand what their purchase is doing politically and agriculturally.

What’s a consumer to do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find a farm that you can buy direct from. Maple syrup is already a luxury product. You’re not likely to find a significantly cheaper product at the grocery store than you are from on-farm. And if you’re buying your maple syrup at Costco, well, you probably won’t find a farmer who can compete with that but you’re probably not much interested in farmers anyways.
  • Ask about bulk discounts. Start a buyer’s club with your friends. This holds true for purchasing any on-farm products! And there are plenty of online forums and information out there for anyone interested in exploring this option (for example, click here).
  • If you’re in New England, go to a farmers’ market. Chances are, you’ll see a maple syrup stand and can talk directly to the producer.
  • Find a way to ask the questions that matter to you. Is your syrup organic? If not, why not? Are you hand labor-powered? Are you a family-run farm? Do you use wood or oil? Can I get a sample?

Decide what’s important to you about the food you eat, then vote with your dollars. It’s not that complicated.

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