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April 2009

Bucket Brigade

A fifth-generation maple man sticks to tradition

Benjamin Franklin envisioned the great  sugar maple stands across New York and New England as an untapped resource that would one day supply the new nation with sweetness. In­vented by Native Americans, maple sugar remains one of the few indigenous, cold-climate sugar industries in the world.

Today’s politicians and researchers face the challenge of expanding the production and profitability of an industry that is steeped in tradition and often slow to change. Senator Charles Schumer advocates a large-scale maple syrup bottling factory in Lewis County, for instance. But often the same modern practices that would increase productivity remove the very essence of what draws so many sugar bush visitors. The enjoyment of maple syrup has as much to do with the process as it does the finished product.

Near the hamlet of Belfort, in pastoral Lewis County, Yancey’s Sugarbush (315-346-6356) has been making maple syrup for more than 160 years. Haskell Yancey, 56, is the fifth generation to work the approximately 180-acre sugar bush. He still depends on horse-drawn sleds to collect sap from thousands of five-gallon metal buckets and gathers enough wood from his own land to fire two large evaporators—up to 60 full cords a season. Some of the trees are more than two centuries old, a symbiosis that seems the epitome of sustainable use.

Maple syrup color, flavor and production methods are as varied as its culinary applications, but the sweet treat always starts with the same species of tree. The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is described in Handbook of the Trees of the Northern States and Canada by Romeyn B. Hough, a prominent 19th-century forester from Lowville, less than 25 miles from the Yancey homestead. “The stately Sugar Maple in the forest sometimes attains the height of 100 ft. or more with trunk from 3 to 5 ft. in diameter. It is without doubt the most valuable hard-wood tree in America, taking into consideration the abundance of maple sugar it produces, the choice figured woods and the valuable plain wood excellent in manufactures and for fuel and rich in potash. Its clear sweet sap is gathered in early spring and evaporated to make the maple sugar, 12 or 13 quarts of sap making a pound of sugar.” (Today, a more common ratio is 40 to 45 gallons of sap to one gallon of maple syrup.)

Sugaring season typically runs from mid-March to mid-April. Tapping the trees at the right time is crucial to a good yield, but there is no litmus test that tells Yancey when to drill. He relies on his experience and intuition: if he starts too soon the tap holes will dry out after a few weeks of freezing weather; if he taps too late he misses the best part of the run—an early rush of especially sweet sap.

“When to tap is probably one of the biggest decisions you make, especially with the bucket system,” says Yancey. “You have to anticipate what the weather’s going to be like in a week to 10 days. That’s how come I don’t have much hair.”

When the sap starts to run at Yancey’s Sugarbush, things get busy. By dawn Yancey has his 60 cows milked and the twin evaporators in his sugarhouse filled and roaring. As the sun warms the trees, the sap trickles into the buckets. Before long a team of Belgian workhorses emerges from the woods pulling a heavy bobsleigh with a full 250 gallons of sap. The horses labor up the steep earthen ramp on their way to the holding tank behind the sugarhouse. The driver, Paul Dicob, is accompanied by the Yanceys’ wily Lab, who dances around the horses’ heavy hooves. As the sap gushes from the gathering tank, the dog hops onto the sled near Dicob. “One of these days you’re not going to be fast enough,” he says.

Inside the 50-year-old shanty is a realm of watchful dedication. As Yancey lifts a metal scoop out of the bubbling vat, he inspects the liquid to see if it “sheets off”—a sign that the syrup is nearly finished. He looks up to find his worker, Ralph Thenes, at the second evaporator obscured by folds of steam and yells, “Say, Ralph, are you making any syrup over there? I don’t want any of that hard candy you made the last time.” Yancey jokes that he should charge for the steam bath that greets visitors. He says it’s why he’s so young looking.

When Yancey decides the syrup is ready, which can be more art than science, it’s emptied into stainless-steel pails and filtered through felt. Tin containers—from half-pint to full gallon—are then filled with hot syrup, sealed and arranged along a wall next to other offerings, like maple cream and sugar.

In a good year Yancey boils 40,000 gallons of sap and produces about 1,000 gallons of maple syrup. With both evaporators going he can generate up to 100 gallons a day. His wife, Jane, also makes about 200 pounds of maple cream and sugar in a season. The Yanceys sell more cream and sugar every year, especially to visitors during Maple Weekend in late March.

Some locals remember gathering as children in Yancey’s kitchen to watch his aunt pour hot syrup onto a pan of snow. When it cooled it formed a chewy amber candy that could be twirled onto a fork and eaten like a lollipop. Sugar on snow was often followed by a sour pickle for contrast. Yancey says to­day’s kids don’t go for it. “They don’t seem to like the idea of eating something off of snow.”

Other traditions are just as difficult to keep. A longtime employee of Yancey’s, now in his 80s, won’t be coming back to drive a team this spring. That may leave one set of Belgians instead of two collecting sap. Yancey says nobody plans to retire from the sugar bush, but it happens anyway. “We’ll keep going as long as we can, but that might not be as long as we’d like,” he says. “We aren’t getting any younger and trying to find help can be discouraging.” His three adult children are interested in the farm, but they’re settled into other jobs and aren’t ready for career changes.

A warming climate also contributes to declining production. “The weather seems to go from one extreme to the other more,” Yancey explains. “It goes a few days too cold, a few days too warm. It isn’t the freeze/thaw you used to get for two weeks. When I was a kid we tapped a few extra trees, but the total production was significantly better than it is now.”

Last year, rather than scale back, Yancey made the difficult decision to replace 600 of his 5,000 sap buckets with plastic tubing. Vacuum tubes increase sap flow and can extend the season, since a closed system keeps the taps from drying out. But Yancey is ambivalent about the upgrade. “I can’t complain about it,” he says, “but I can’t brag about it either.” This spring he won’t be adding more tubing, but he acknowledges that eventually it will be necessary.

Environmental challenges such as acid rain, climate change and crippling ice storms have had an impact on many producers in the North Country. Mike Farrell, director of the Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station, in Lake Placid, says traditional producers are particularly vulnerable. “In order to get an economically viable yield, you almost need vacuum-assisted tubing,” he says. “Otherwise you’re at the whim of Mother Nature.”

Uihlein is an outpost of Cornell University dedicated to improving productivity in the maple industry. The 207-acre forest provides an outdoor laboratory where the latest research is applied to a working sugar bush. The operation is similar in scale to Yancey’s, but its opposite in terms of technology. At the Lewis County farm, value is added through intensive labor, while Uihlein’s systematic process is nearly push-button.

At the research station sap flows from the trees through a 35-mile network of plastic tubing. It is filtered, sterilized by ultraviolet light and concentrated with a reverse osmosis unit before reaching an evaporator. The method can produce up to 30 gallons of syrup an hour. It’s about as close as you can get to turning a spigot on a maple and having syrup come out.

Farrell explains that reverse osmosis is Uihlein’s biggest ad­vantage over older methods, since the process removes up to 80 percent of the water from the sap before it’s boiled, saving time and fuel. The facility has also bred a “super maple” with sap up to three times sweeter than a typical tree. Efficiencies like these may be key to the industry’s future. “Think about where we came from,” he says. “Centuries ago, when the Native Americans scored the trees with a hatchet and boiled the sap using hot stones placed in birch-bark containers—the technology has grown exponentially since then.”

But Yancey remains unconverted. He points out that syrup that isn’t cooked as long, due to advances like reverse osmosis, may have a milder flavor. “The equipment makes a difference,” he says. “The faster you boil [the sap] the lighter the color of the syrup, in general.”

So which method results in the better syrup: high-tech or traditional? Differences are a matter of taste, akin to those found between bourbon distillers or winemakers. Variations in soil, climate and processes create fertile ground for the maple-syrup epicure.

Some regions have gone to great lengths to differentiate their products. Vermont calls itself the maple syrup state, for justifiable reasons: at about 500,000 gallons last year, Vermont is the largest of the U.S. producers. Tim Wilmot, a University of Vermont Extension maple specialist, feels success is a natural result of the state’s environmentally progressive image.

Other producers have found niches by obtaining certification as USDA organic. The organic producer, for instance, must keep nearby fields free of certain pesticides and fertilizers. However, Dale Moser, president of the American Maple Museum, in Croghan, says maple syrup is essentially organic already. “You don’t do anything to it,” he says. “It comes out of the tree and you boil it down.”

Yancey says he used to sell his bulk syrup to a few big distributors in Vermont, but now more of it goes to smaller outlets throughout New York and New England. Quebec, by far the largest producer, has captured most of the big bulk buyers, including those in Vermont. “They have the volume to say, ‘We can provide all the syrup you need.’ We can’t supply the P & C in Lowville, you have to supply the whole chain.” He hopes New York State’s plan to build a maple packing plant in Lewis County will help North Country operations compete.

For Yancey traditional production has been a way of life, not a marketing decision. Milder winters, acid rain, a scarcity of workers and the advantages of new technology all work against that way of life, and the economic benefits of agritourism remain underdeveloped in the western Adirondacks and Tug Hill. While there is no blueprint for preserving the old ways, we can be sure of the thaw at the end of a long winter and a chance to rekindle the wood-fired hearths of the past or discover the cutting-edge traditions of tomorrow.

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