“The sugar maple is a sensitive tree. They are just like humans, in that sap is like blood…that’s why they are in danger from climate change.” These words, spoken by eighty-year old maple farmer Alvin Clark, encapsulate the ultimate message of this fascinating look at the trees that make the syrup that make our pancakes taste so special.
Author Douglas Whynott, who has made a name for himself writing about ordinary lives (A Country Practice,
Giant Bluefin) spent a year among maple tree farmers in the northern reaches of America--New Hampshire and Vermont. There he found, and has underscored for his readership, old-fashioned “Yankee” virtues of hard work, family cohesion, and honesty,
centering mainly on the Bascom clan (Bruce Bascom is a member of the Maple Hall of Fame) whose livelihood is measured by the gallon--80,000 would be a decent year. Contrary to the romantic notion that maple sugar gathering is all about “oxen and buckets,” Whynott reveals the tubing, tanks, boilers and barrels behind the scenes--the processing equipment required for modern mass syrup harvesting.
Five hundred barrels of granulated maple sugar can yield more than a million dollars in retail sales; each barrel requires 50 gallons of syrup. Real maple sugar (not the flavored, colored white version) runs around $14 a pound to the consumer. Syrup is a big business, yet nearly all producers are small family units operating like sea captains of old, by their own judgment, as the author’s visits to various growers (the farms are known as “sugarbush”) illustrates.
Syrup gathering was a survival art taught to the earliest settlers by indigenous tribes. With the passing of time and the invention of sophisticated plastics and a process called reverse osmosis, the process has modernized; sugarbush owners have been compared to oil drillers, whose production is also measured in gallons and barrels. Canada is the world's largest syrup producer, with our northern states running second; the international syrup cartel is comparable to a mini-OPEC. Harvests are weather-dependent, as the tree’s sap will rise for only a few cold weeks of the year. Bruce Bascom and his cohort are fanatical temperature watchers--they need “long” years to maximize profits.
Under Whynott’s skilled eye for detail, this book shows the syrup business as different in kind, but not in culture, from other family farming endeavors in America. The traditions, the lore, and the understanding of the marketplace are all requisites, and are all handed down through generations in a natural, one could say
organic, sort of way. Bruce was college educated, didn’t have to return to the family sugarbush, but like so many farmers' offspring, the business of the land had a strong call for him.
To read this book is to be educated and enthralled. All the talk of grades and colors and sweetness will almost certainly drive you to the supermarket to purchase as near to authentic maple syrup as you can find, and turn on the griddle.