The Sweetest Time of the Year

It’s April, and despite having the earliest start on Stannard Farm that we can recall (late February!), we are still going along. No, we haven’t been boiling every day since February. In fact, it’s almost as if there were two seasons this year. In between the early start and this last week, we’ve only made a barrel here and a barrel there in between cold snaps and days that really didn’t get quite warm enough for our trees to start flowing. Now that spring is here, our sap has been flowing strongly for a week and we’re getting in our season while everyone else is wrapping up theirs. It’s not unlikely that this will be the new normal for us. Without getting political, let’s just say that I do believe in climate change and that we are moving towards more and more erratic weather patterns, with record highs in February and record lows in March becoming common winter weather.

So what does that actually mean for our farm family? It means a couple of things. First, it means we don’t have one three-week long sugaring intensive. This has pro’s and con’s — it’s easier to keep up with the other parts of life but it also means that for weeks on end you need to be on your toes and ready to sugar at a moment’s notice. Second, it means my set-up is disrupted for weeks on end. Usually my packing and boxing supplies are set up in the sugarhouse but this time of year, everything is packed away to make room for sugaring. This is all well and good when sugaring season lasts three weeks. But when it goes on and on, I end up needing to pack syrup. We pull the hoppers (20 gallon stainless steel guys we heat the maple syrup in before hot-packing it) out of the sugarhouse attic. We bring the empty jugs up from storage. We move barrels of maple syrup up from storage. And as I pack, I have literally nowhere to put the jugs of maple syrup so they get moved back to storage as soon as they are cool enough to handle. One day as Ly was on the cusp of getting sick and inconsolable unless I was holding her, I moved over 100 jugs of maple syrup with her strapped to my back. True story.

What is my point in all of this? My point is that farming is hard. Most jobs have moments of hard in them, it is called “work” after all. Farming takes more than hard work, it takes everything. But unlike many other jobs, it gives you everything right back. The land, the satisfaction of working with your hands, the pride in making something that you share, that provides sweet sustenance to your family and to other families. There is nothing else like this. This sugaring season I spent more time in the sugarhouse than I ever have. James and I cuddled up on hot barrels of maple syrup on colder days while I waited to throw more wood on the fire. I climbed ladders and sprayed down foaming sap. I flung droplets of organic safflower oil into the maple syrup to keep it from boiling over. I threw wood on the fire, learning to mix wet, green wood with dry wood to produce an even fire. I shared fresh sap with James.

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But the weather this season was not the only thing on my mind. We have been steadily increasing our maple syrup sales since we were first certified organic in 2007 and are at a point where we may need to invest in new packing equipment and in expanding, or perhaps we stay where we are and possibly contract a little. It depends on a lot of factors. How much time can Travis put into the farm, do I want to work off-farm part or full-time or do I want to throw myself into sugaring? Can I see my west coast family regularly if I am a full-time farmer? How are the kids doing? Can we keep relying on occasional bits of free labor from Travis’ younger sisters as they buy houses, start families, build careers? For me, family farming has become a microcosm for all the big questions I have asked myself and continue to ask myself as I grow up (and I suspect I’ll be growing up all my life).

These choices our family is facing are not unique, the maple landscape is changing in Vermont and elsewhere. There are now 30,000 – 50,000 tap operations (perspective: we tap 6000 trees, and each tree needs a person to come by with a drill and a tap, we can’t expand production much more and stay at a family-scale of labor). It seems this concerns some sugarmakers but not others, read here and here for brief, somewhat contrasting views.

And if maple family farming is a microcosm for my life’s questions, I think it is also a microcosm for farming in general. It’s old news that family farms, despite being the foundation of Jeffersonian democracy and the iconic American image, yeoman farmer and all that, are on the decline and have been for years.

farms over time

It seems to me there are two directions to go: forward with ever-increasing technology and ever-less hands, or move laterally to a new kind of rural economy. In this kind of economy, farms are more diversified — this means there is insurance built in for the years when one harvest does not do well, and it means there might be more room for part-time or full-time work off-farm, or value-added or agri-tourism work on-farm or alongside the farm. In this kind of economy there are partnerships and networks linking farms to local institutions to provide food, or siting a food operation that can pull from some of the farm labor in the area. Farms are both less the focus of the economy and, at a small scale, more prevalent and embedded in the economy. Once upon a time, everyone had a cow and a garden. I’m not suggesting we all return to that, but I am suggesting there is a lesson to be learned.

I don’t know what the rise of big maple means for Vermont, or what the overall decline in farming means in the U.S. But I am here in Vermont because I believe devoutly that farming needs to be a part of my children’s life. So whether I decide to work off-farm or not, whether The Reynolds Family sugars a little or a lot, I know that April will always be the sweetest time of the year.

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