Sugaring season off to a slow start

With winter weather still lingering, maple producers hope for a great April

GRAFTON — With temperatures barely above freezing last Saturday, sugarhouses in southern Vermont were only on their third day of boiling.

But John Plummer, third-generation owner of Plummer's Sugarhouse at 2866 Townshend Rd., said this was more like normal than “normal” has been the last few years, recalling the years past when sugaring did not start until the last week in March.

However, on the other extreme, he said that two years ago, the family started boiling in mid-February and the season was over by March 25.

This year, on day three, the Plummer sugarhouse hoped to boil close to 225 gallons. When The Commons visited before noon, the sugar makers had reached the 125-gallon mark.

The three people in the operation - Plummer, his wife, Debe, and their longtime employee, Eric Toby - maintain close to 6,000 taps set around 100 acres of sugarbush. Besides their own 6,000 taps, “we buy sap from several other people, so we are boiling from 10,000 taps,” Debe Plummer said.

She said one of those guys has not shown up yet, and he uses “all buckets” which is a lot more labor intensive.

“He's an older guy. I hope he's tapping this year,” Plummer mused.

The Plummers hope to make approximately 5,000 gallons of syrup this year.

But that all depends on the weather.

“We'll have to wait and see. It's early [in the season] yet,” John Plummer said.

Maple syrup production has climbed annually since 2011, nationally, with Vermont the highest producer, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Nationally, maple syrup production in 2013 was up 70 percent from 2012. On average, the 2013 season lasted 37 days, compared with 24 days in 2012.

Plummer said that an average price per gallon for maple syrup each year is based on supply and demand, and this year, prices would reach around $50 per gallon. The 2012 U.S. average price per gallon was $39.10, up from the 2011 price of $37.90.

And it is too early in the season to tell how this year will fare for maple sugar houses around Vermont.

Always done it

The Plummers have been sugaring since they were married more than 30 years ago.

“I've always done it,” said Plummer, who inherited the farm from his father. He also hays and operates a custom-cut sawmill, and he says that keeps him pretty busy the rest of the year.

Plummer said the only real stress, especially during boiling, is when equipment breaks down. The maple syrup part of the business makes up 80 percent of yearly income, according to Debe Plummer, who oversees the business side of the operation.

The Plummers run lines directly from their sugarbush to their tanks in the sugarhouse.

Plummer said they drill a new hole in the trees for the taps each year, and that the taps they use now are about half the size (5/16ths of an inch) of the previous half-inch taps.

He said the number of taps depends on the size of the tree, and the sugar content depends on the “spread of the canopy. The more sun, the bigger the [tree and the] canopy.”

Plummer said they thin a section of the sugarbush each year to allow that sunlight in.

“We start tapping when a tree reaches 8 to 10 inches [in diameter]. And every 10 inches bigger, we can add another tap,” Plummer said. “There's not a whole lot of trees that get more than two taps.”

When the sap reaches the sugarhouse, a reverse-osmosis machine (ROM) removes about 75 percent of the water before the fluid goes into sap tanks, according to Plummer. The sap tanks are then piped to the boiling tanks.

When you walk into a sugarhouse, the steam from that boil-off fills your nostrils with an unmistakeable maple-sugar scent. These days, a temperature gauge determines when the sap is done.

While Plummer was in the back rooms where the sap and ROM are located, Toby was in the boiling shed last weekend.

“He's the only one John will trust to boil other than himself,” Debe Plummer said.

Toby has been setting taps and working with the Plummers “since I was in diapers,” he recalled - about 24 years.

Last year, Toby took over the boiling operation on the weekends. The rest of the week, he works for a landscaping company in Brattleboro.

Toby said his early work with the Plummers and their trees is largely responsible for his decision to become an arborist.

“We're boiling dark amber,” Toby said, displaying a gauge that determines the different grades of syrup, by color. Those grades are determined and set by the state.

He displays two gauges. One from the USDA is a sort of mechanical gauge; the other, four sample bottles of different grades of syrup sitting in a wooden tray with holes cut so the color is visible through the glass. The Plummers determine the grade of syrup daily by matching its color against these standards.

• Grade A Dark Amber, which they were boiling that day, has a “dark-amber color, robust maple bouquet [with a heartier maple flavor...very popular for table and all around use,” according to the Plummers' website.

• Grade A Fancy (also known as Grade A Light) has a light-amber color and a delicate maple flavor.

• Grade A Medium Amber has a medium-amber color and a pronounced maple bouquet

• Grade B is the strongest and darkest table-grade maple syrup. Many Vermonters prefer this syrup for the table, and its stronger maple flavor makes it the best grade for cooking.


Debe Plummer said their sales reach their highest levels in November and December - “right around Christmas” - and that they mostly ship to the Western and Southern U.S., as well as Hawaii and Alaska. They get a number of orders from England, Germany, France, and Russia.

“As soon as you ship overseas, the price about doubles,” due to the shipping costs, she said. But, she added, “There are people who know what they want and are willing to pay the price.”

She indicated the shelves of their sales room, “which are kind of bare at this time of year,” and said they pretty much sell out each year. Besides the different grades and sizes (pints, quarts, and gallons) of syrup, the Plummers also make and package maple cream and maple sugar candy, in the room right next door.

'It's what we do'

Does the late start to the season portend a bad crop?

Windham County Forester Sam Schneski points to his own experience.

“I do some sugarmaking on a hobby/really small business scale making roughly 20 to 25 gallons a year,” Schneski said. “So far, with these cold temps, I am nowhere near my normal production, but when I look back at my records, it was just in 2012 when my first boil wasn't until March 13 - and that ended up being my best year ever.”

“Sugarmakers are pretty realistic folks often answering the question of 'How do you think you'll do this year?' with 'I'll tell you after my last boil,'” Schneski said.

Both Plummers, when asked if they were happy with this kind of work, said, “It's what we do.”

“We've always done it,” John Plummer said. “And its probably what we'll always do.”

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