Dining

The Shortest Season

Douglas Whynott writes about the changing landscape of maple syrup production.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

After 19 years of living in Massachusetts, I’m ready to concede that there are certain Yankee customs that I will never be able to accept—the insistence on driving in snowstorms, say, or that fancy-pants way of pronouncing “aunt.”

But there is one New England tradition that I embrace enthusiastically: the start of maple sugaring season as the harbinger of yet another long-awaited spring. I love the metal buckets dangling from maples in forests and front yards; the big gray syrup jugs and boxes of tooth-dissolving maple leaf candies on store shelves; the frozen-mud parking lots outside steaming sugarhouses; pancake breakfasts at pop-up restaurants open for a tragically short season.

I’m not the only one who swoons at this Yankee-magazine notion of syrup production. As Douglas Whynott writes in his new book, The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest (Da Capo Press), “In the minds of most people … a sugarhouse is a cottage-sized building with a smokestack for a wood fire and a cupola or some other sort of opening for venting steam. The sugarhouse sits alongside a road, maybe an unpaved country road. There is a woodpile outside and maybe buckets hanging on trees nearby. Possibly there is a horse, maybe a draft horse used to pull a wagon and gather maple sap. Snow covers the ground, a fire is burning, and the sugarhouse door is open. There is syrup ready to be sampled.”

Such charming images notwithstanding, The Sugar Season shows the business of maple sugaring as a sophisticated, complex industry, subject, like all industries, to market forces and circumstances beyond producers’ control. In this case, those vexing variables include the weather during any given sugaring season and larger changes in climate that could spell disaster for the industry’s future.

Whynott’s book chronicles the sugaring season of 2012—a year when temperature fluctuation bedeviled producers—at Bascom’s Maple Farm, in the southwestern New Hampshire town of Acworth. This is no backyard operation; Whynott likens Bascom’s to an “industrial plant” that relies on plastic tubing to carry sap from the trees and reverse-osmosis machines that separate concentrated sap from water. Owner Bruce Bascom acknowledges that this image doesn’t jibe with the romantic notions many hold about the business. “The public out there still thinks we’re doing it in the mythic way with oxen and buckets,” he tells Whynott. “We can’t put a picture of tubing and vacuum on that jug of syrup.”

Bruce Bascom is the heart of the business, the latest and, it appears, likely last generation to run this family venture, which covers about 800 wooded acres. In 2010, Whynott reports, Bascom’s produced about 23,900 gallons of syrup, about one-quarter of the total yield in New Hampshire that year. Still, Bascom’s own syrup accounts for just a small part of its business. Bruce Bascom’s real bread and butter is buying and selling syrup he gets from other producers around the region. (He also runs a shop that sells equipment to other sugar houses and to hobbyists who invest more in their small-scale operations than they could ever recoup in sales.)

Whynott also offers a brief history of sugaring, which European settlers learned from Indians, who boiled sap in hollowed-out logs warmed by heated stones. In the 19th century, abolitionists promoted maple sugar as an alternative to slave-produced white sugar. In the last decades of the 20th century, innovations like plastic tubing and reverse-osmosis machines revolutionized the industry.

Still, all the technical advances in the world mean nothing if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Successful sugaring, as any New Englander knows, requires that magical combination of freezing nights and warmer days to get the sap flowing. But a bigger threat than unaccommodating weather is climate change. In 2009, Whynott writes, the state of New Hampshire issued a sobering report warning of the dangers posed by climate change to the region’s sugar maples. Without dramatic intervention to reduce carbon levels, it said, by the end of this century, the climate of New Hampshire would resemble the climate today in North Carolina—a development that would threaten not just the sugaring industry, but other key New England businesses like ski resorts and fisheries as well.

Could the romantic attachment so many of us have to sugaring—not to mention the pragmatic recognition of the economic importance it has to this region—help spur movement toward addressing climate change? Whynott ends The Sugar Season with this thought: “Maybe the maple syrup industry can speak for the rest of the country, to the rest of the country, for it is a bellwether, this earliest of agricultural traditions, the first to be taught to settlers by Native Americans, this pursuit that relies on sensitive fluctuations in temperature, as the sun advances north and the trees freeze by night.”

 

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