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Pam and Rich Green are maple sugarmakers and owners of Green's Sugarhouse in Poultney, Vermont. They make pure Vermont maple syrup and related products, including maple cream spread, maple sugar candies and granulated maple sugar. Rich learned maple sugaring from his grandfather. Pam, on the other hand, married into it, 42 years ago.
Sugaring will never generate a lot of money. It is more a labor of love and a chosen lifestyle. It is so labor intensive, in every aspect, that Pam and Rich can't imagine anyone doing it who didn't feel passionately about it. As their sons grew up and left home and other family members aged, Pam and Rich made improvements to the overall efficiency of their operation. They now run the entire operation on their own. Pam and Rich are in their 60s and expect to have many years of sugaring left!
Read Pam's diary below to learn about how the freakishly warm weather has impacted maple sugaring season.
Monday, March 19
6:15am: Rich is up, but I fell back to sleep. Exhausted from boiling sap into syrup every single day for a week. Maple sugaring season usually lasts from four to six weeks in March and April. Or in the case of Vermont, mud season! While snow keeps things cold during the season, the temperatures are the most important. Twenty-five degrees at night and 40 to 45 degrees during the day are ideal. The freezing and thawing pattern builds up pressure within the trees and forces the sap out the tapholes. This winter we've had no snow cover and the temperatures have not been settling into a normal pattern. They've been too warm. There is still some frost in the ground and it's colder in the woods, so the sap has still been coming in.
7:15am: The telephone wakes me up. It's a really late start to the day but lucky for me, Rich hasn't geared up yet either. He's down to the sugarhouse checking on the sap flow and the levels in the tanks so they don't overflow.
8:30am: Finally eating breakfast. Our usual, oatmeal with our own maple syrup. My breakfast is interrupted by a call from one of the members of my Marketing Committee for the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. I'm the chair of this committee and a subcommittee is organizing the official kickoff to the season with the Governor tapping a tree on the Vermont Statehouse lawn and a maple sugar-on-snow party for the Legislators. Details need to be finalized.
9am: Rich is already at the sugarhouse. He takes our John Deere Gator down with our Beagle dog, Tapper, riding shotgun! The JD Gator is the real workhorse around this farm. Usually, we can get into the woods to check the pipelines even in the deepest snow after our larger tractor plows the sugaring roads. The front pan on the evaporator needs to be scrubbed clean every morning before we start up again. Rich is setting it up to drain and then heads for the woods to check the tubing for leaks. Our tubing system is connected to a vacuum pump so the sap is brought back quickly to the sugarhouse. Squirrels always chewi holes in the tubing. It sometimes seems like repairs are needed daily. Gauges on the lines in the woods help pinpoint when sections are in trouble.
10:30am: Put a pot of maple syrup on the stove as I need to make maple sugar bunny rabbits for a candy store order and for the weekend. Before I can turn it on, the phone rings. Have to confirm when the syrup will be ready that the Maple Association is donating to the Jr. Iron Chef Competition.
11:45am: Abandon all hope of getting anything done at the sugarhouse this morning. Walk back to the house to get lunch going.
1:45pm: Finally headed back to the sugarhouse! 71 degrees and sunny. Not good sugaring weather. Remarkably, the sap is still flowing. Rich has the reverse osmosis machine turned on and the concentrate tank is filling. I scrub and rinse the 200 gallon stainless steel tank upstairs that feeds the evaporator. As soon as I'm finished, I pump sap up into that tank so the concentrate tank will have room to fill while I scrub the front pan on the evaporator. There are minerals in the sap (called nitre or sugar sand) and a certain amount of them precipitate out during boiling, forming a scale on the bottom of the pan. It has to be scrubbed off before boiling can start again.
3pm: The pan is scrubbed, rinsed and dried. All the fittings are flushed with water and put back in place. It took me too long; the concentrate tank is full again. Have to shut down the reverse osmosis machine until I can get the evaporator fired up. Call Rich in to dump the heavy buckets of "sweet water" (partially boiled sap) back into the front pan. The back pan has sap in it all the time and only gets scrubbed above the sap line. No time to do that today! As soon as the front pan has liquid in it, I scrape the ashes into the ash pit below. Leaving ashes on the grates could cause them to warp or even break. I place an old cardboard box in on top of the grates, some crumbled newspapers and then load the arch (or firebox) with wood, the traditional fuel for making maple syrup. I put small pieces on the side where the finished syrup will draw off, large ones on the other side so the fire will catch the small ones quickly and slowly work its way across.
I double check all the valves and settings and then light the fire. In about 10 minutes, the entire evaporator is in full boil. Steam is rising through the steam stacks in the roof. It's time to turn on the sap. The sap from the tank upstairs gravity-feeds into a large back pan. Most of the evaporation takes place there. This evaporator can send 300 gallons of water per hour up and out as steam. That lets me make about 25 gallons of syrup an hour. The sap coming in from the woods is only about two percent sugar, the concentrated sap is about six to eight percent and the finished syrup is 66.7- 66.9 percent sugar, so a lot of water needs to be evaporated quickly to make syrup.
It's a continuous process once we get started, so there is a continuous flow of sap coming in from the woods. A front pan, or syrup pan, is attached to front of the back pan. The thinner sap flowing from the back pan pushes any sap that is thicker over to the last section on the side of the front pan. We have a temperature probe inserted in this section, as this is where the finished syrup will be made. The probe is connected to our automatic drawoff and when the temperature in the pan matches the one we have set for syrup, the syrup will be drawn off into a 60 gallon stainless steel vat on wheels.
4pm: Rich comes in to take over firing (putting wood in) the arch. The person running the evaporator puts wood in every six minutes for -- usually -- eight to 12 hours. Because of the extremely warm weather, the sap flow has slowed and we've only been boiling for about four to five hours a day.
4:25pm: Head back into the canning kitchen, part of our sugarhouse, to start up that pot of syrup for the bunny rabbits. I add a thermometer to the pot so I can tell when the temperature reaches 242 degrees. Usually 240 degrees is enough, but it's so warm and humid I'll remove a bit more water. I finish packing mail order packages while I wait. One package with six quarts to Colorado and another with five gallons to Texas. Our website helps us expand our customer base and keeps us in touch with existing customers.
I get the candy machine, which stirs the syrup for me, set up along with the candy molds. I'm going to pour some small maple leaf shapes along with the larger bunny rabbits for Easter. Our youngest son calls and wants to know what he and his wife can bring for the weekend. It's Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, when sugarhouses across the State will open their doors to visitors. Our family will be here to help. Have to cut our conversation short as my syrup is ready. Took about 45 minutes for the syrup to boil down and it will take close to an hour to finish pouring the candies.
5:48pm: Finish the candies. They will sit in the rubber molds on racks to cool and harden until tomorrow. Rich is shutting down the evaporator. We slowly let the fire die down and then run the rest of the sap into the pans for cooling.
6:30pm: Head to the house for supper. We have a light evening meal. Seem to sleep better. Tonight it's an egg sandwich with turkey bacon.
7:10pm: Rich heads back to the sugarhouse to can the syrup we made earlier. About 100 gallons. It will be graded for color and flavor, checked for proper density or thickness and then filtered. As we're making the syrup, we can it into 40 gallon stainless steel barrels and put them into our walk-in cooler to preserve the fresh flavor of the syrup.
10:45pm: Rich still isn't home. I call to check on him. The syrup needs to be filtered in order to remove the nitre or sugar sand. The mineral deposits that form that scale on the bottom of the pan also cloud the syrup. We are making commercial, or "C" grade, syrup, which is very, very dark. Even though we are pushing it through filter papers under pressure, it is still going very slowly. Rich is tired and frustrated, but has to see it through while it is hot. It has to be at least 185 degrees to can properly. There's nothing I can do to help so I'm giving up. I feed the cat and head for bed.
Tuesday, March 20
7:30am: Slept right through our usual 6am wake up time. Rich heads for the sugarhouse. We can't get really enthused as it is so sunny and too warm AGAIN. 48 degrees. Should be 25 degrees. I'd really love this weather if it was May! The Official Governor's Tree Tapping Ceremony and Sugar-on-Snow Party for the Legislators is today in Montpelier. It seems ironic that the governor is kicking off the season and it may be close to ending.
9:00am: Head for the sugarhouse. Rich is making batches of maple cream. A great spread for toast, waffles, English muffins and warm cinnamon buns or donuts.
12:13pm: Back to the house to get lunch. Today we're having pork chops with an apple maple glaze (so easy to make!), mashed potatoes and leftover cabbage salad. It's 69 degrees and sunny. Bright blue sky without a cloud in sight. There are so many birds all singing so loudly. No mud season at all! Unheard-of for this time of year!
2:30pm: Headed back to the sugarhouse. The temperature has soared to 78 degrees! Hate to think about standing in front of that roaring fire. Clean the upstairs tank as soon as I get there as the RO machine is already running.
3:00pm: The evaporator is all fired up and boiling.
4:10pm: I'm roasting! Rich comes in to take over so I can pack my mail order packages. Had to wait for the jam to cool or I would have done them earlier. A neighbor stops by to see how things are going.
5:45pm: Put the RO machine on wash cycle, let the evaporator finish cooling down and head to the house for supper. It looks like it's Grape Nuts cereal tonight. Almost too hot to eat!
6:30pm: Rich and Tapper the dog head back to the sugarhouse to see how the evaporator is cooling, put the RO machine on rinse cycle and take a ride over on the "Homestead" land to run another support wire for a line that's sagging with all the heat.
10:00pm: Feed the cat and head for bed. Haven't had to run the woodstove to keep the house warm. Took the down comforter off the bed as it's really warm.
Wednesday, March 21
6:00am: I'm up! Rich is still up before me, but going to bed early must have helped. Rich calls from the door for me to come and see a whole flock of bluebirds! I've never seen a whole flock of them and they were absolutely gorgeous!
6:45am: On my way to the sugarhouse. The sun is just coming up. I get the pan draining and then start on the salad dressing. Only enough olive oil and vinegar for six cases. It seems like a lot of sugarmakers are calling it quits for the season. Send out a notice through the Association Secretary that anyone who is not going to be open for Maple Open House Weekend should let us know so we can put a note to that effect by their name on the website. Let the person in charge of the Association website know what we will need to do.
9:30am: Put the candies in a thickened maple syrup so that they will get a maple crystal coating on them to increase their shelf.
10:00am: Waiting for Rich to flush the system before I wash the tank upstairs. He's been busy washing the large tanks outside. Each holds 1,250 gallons. I once tried to wash them myself, but I got stuck inside!
11:45am: Had a couple of customers stop by and some phone calls inquiring if we would be open this weekend. Finish cleaning the pan and head for the house to get lunch. Roasted chicken legs with a sundried tomato and basil seasoning, baked potatoes and butternut squash baked with maple syrup and cinnamon.
The sap is coming in so slowly there really isn't enough to boil yet. It's milky from the hot weather. It spoils quickly. We decide not to boil. We'll dump what there is on the ground. Yesterday may have been our last boil of the season. We have half a crop at this point: about 1,100 gallons. Rich has been using the lull in boiling to do some more work in the woods.
1:30pm: Back at the sugarhouse. Take the racks of candies out of the thickened syrup. Separate the racks and stand the candies on edge to drain. Clean the tank upstairs while I'm waiting and pack the rest of the items for an order to be delivered Friday.
2:00pm: The candies are ready to be racked for drying. Each one has to have the excess syrup patted off with a damp towel. It is tedious work.
4:00pm: On the road to BJ's, a discount food warehouse in Saratoga, NY, to pick up more supplies for the weekend. I can't believe we actually have the air conditioning on in the Tahoe in March!
6:30pm: Decide to eat at one of the local restaurants. They've redecorated since our last visit. They're really evil -- they've installed a dark chocolate fountain! Small cherry coconut macaroons on a stick are just too tempting to resist.
9:00pm: Unload our supplies and hear the peeper frogs in the small pond out back. We look at each other with foreboding. Usually their shrill chorus heralds the end to another sugaring season
Thursday, March 22
6:00am: The warm temperatures continue -- 54 degrees at 6am!
7:30am: Head for the sugarhouse. I never tire of that walk -- especially in the morning -- from the house to the sugarhouse. It just puts you right in the midst of all of nature's glory. I start a batch of small candies. I should have over 1,000 of them in stock before the weekend. Do some mail order packages while I wait for the syrup to boil down. I want to make pancake mix but all the syrup must be out of the room before I can start that. Rich has been canning syrup almost every day in order to have enough sizes in all the different grades done up for the weekend. We usually have about 700 to 800 people come through for Open House.
8:00am: I discover that we are short on pancake mix supplies. Rich heads for the restaurant supply warehouse about 20 miles away, for supplies. Tapper is happy to catch a ride in the air conditioning. It's been too hot for even him.
10:00am: The candy is in the molds and hardening. Rich is putting the finishing touches on a display outside showing different taps, tubing and buckets. He's replaced the old beams holding up the lean-to roof along the side of the sugarhouse with maple tree logs. It looks great! He gets syrup going to can small maple leaf bottles for favors at the Rotary Club's Community Dinner and quart jugs for the Chamber of Commerce's Saturday morning pancake breakfast. I almost forgot that we need glass leaf bottles in graduated sizes for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awards at the 5K Run on Saturday.
11:45am: Finished canning syrups. Head for the house to get lunch. We need something quick so we can get back to work. I always have some chicken cutlets that I can cook frozen. We have those, along with mashed potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli and a few home-canned pickled beets.
12:30pm: We're headed back to the sugarhouse. Rich decides to do some extra canning. I pack some more mail order packages and take the candies out of the molds and put them on the racks to dry.
2:00pm: Finish with the candies. Rich is back at the house making the custom labels for the Rotary Club's syrups and the ones to be used as prizes. I start labeling shaker jars for maple sugar sprinkles and pure granulated maple sugar.
3:00pm: Our friend from New Jersey shows up and wants to help. Unfortunately, there are those dishes from yesterday but he doesn't seem to mind. With all the syrup put away I can have Rich help me drag out all the heavy bags of flour, etc. for the pancake mix.
4:30pm: Ed is finishing the dishes, all the ingredients for the pancake mix is out and Rich suggests we go to the local pub for a bite to eat. I think he's ready for a beer!
7:15pm: I'm headed back to the sugarhouse to make the pancake mix. I start with the sugarhouse mix first, as it doesn't contain any dairy. I place a large plastic bag over the mixer to keep as much flour as possible out of the air. The sugarhouse is our most popular variety, so I make 100 pounds of it and place it in tightly sealed plastic food grade buckets. Next I switch to our buttermilk mix. I found a whole bucket of this mix when I was looking for empty buckets, so I'll only make 40 pounds of this mix. That will get me out of the sugarhouse before midnight.
Friday, March 23
8:15am: I'm on the way to the sugarhouse. I get busy cleaning up the evaporator room. There is always a film of ash on the top of the steam hoods to clean off, the outside of the pans need to wiped down and the inside edge of the back pan gets a wipe-off.
9:25am: I don't get to finish cleaning, because they show up wanting the stuff for the Rotary. I had emailed that it would be ready for pickup at noon. Since they are here, I get 30 pounds of pancake mix bagged up for the pancake breakfast and the syrups are ready for the breakfast and the Rotary. The prizes aren't ready because we need another set. Apparently, they forgot to tell us that there is a women's division and a men's division. We'll can up more by noon. Also I need two baskets, one for the 1st prize in the maple bake-off and one for the guest speaker at the Rotary Dinner. And an item for the silent auction. I get working on those right away.
10:30am: Ed and his girlfriend show up and Rich puts them right to work bagging pancake mix. I package up the maple sugar bunny rabbits and load the car with deliveries.
11:00am: I put the candies in to coat and head for town. I work my way along Main Street. First the Post Office, then the Bank, Shaw's supermarket for sandwich rolls, a delivery to the co-op food market, the bunny rabbits to the candy store and then back up to the discount food store for sandwich meats, vegetables and milk.
12:15pm: Return to the sugarhouse and unload the supplies needed there. It seems so odd not to have to boil sap. Usually, the week before Open House Weekend, we barely have time to remember our own names.
3:00pm: Rich helps me get the seven racks of small maple leaf candies out of the coating pot. I stand them all up to drain and get my drying racks ready.
3:30pm: Rich's parents arrive. They haven't been up for ages. His Mom starts boxing candies. Our friends arrive later and help her with the candies. By now I've started patting the candies off. Rich and Ed head for the house to start supper. Rich has brined his own corned beef. It's delicious and has to cook for quite some time. They'll add whole potatoes, onions and cabbage as the cooking progresses. The baby carrots will get steamed separately.
5:30pm: I'm finally finishing the candies and get all the racks washed. Rich came back down and got out the cotton candy machine.
6:30pm: The table is set and the feast begins. Delicious! Mom insists on washing the dishes! The rest of us relax in the living room. We're too tired even to play cards.
9:30pm: Our youngest son, his wife, two beagle dogs and the neighbors and their white dust mop of a dog arrive. Shortly after, our older son, his wife and their boxer dog arrive. It's so great to have them all here.
Saturday, March 24
4:30am: Rich is already at the sugarhouse making his famous maple cinnamon buns frosted with our own pure maple cream.
6:00am: I head for the sugarhouse. I figure when one of those buns cools that will be breakfast enough with a large glass of orange juice. Everyone else will fend for themselves as they get up at the house. I start right in cleaning in the arch room what I didn't finish yesterday. The friend of ours who came with our son helps scrub the stainless steel tables and counters. Before we know it we're done and ready to hose down and scrub the floor.
8:30am: By now, the sugarhouse is a beehive of activity. Everyone has participated in Open House before and they all know what to do. The shelves are being stocked and arranged in the sales room, warm buns are being frosted, coffee is brewing, dishes are washed. Even the girl up the road is here, brushing my horse and braiding her mane. She does a school project every year that involves the horses and gives a little presentation to anyone who wanders down the lane to the horse pasture. Her Mom and brother are getting the cotton candy machine ready to make maple cotton candy. Our oldest son and his wife are getting syrup cooking so it will be the right consistency for maple sugar-on-snow (shaved ice). A traditional Vermont treat! Rich, Ed and my father-in-law are busy bringing in wood so there will be an ample supply for boiling.
9:30am: More help arrives: my youngest son's mother-in-law, our friends from the next town and Rich's cousin. He'll be in charge of boiling today so I can give the tour of the evaporator room. He sugared when he was a boy but other than boiling for us on Open House Weekend he doesn't do it anymore. He says this weekend is like reliving his childhood.
10:00am: We open the doors. The evaporator is steaming and everyone is ready. The weather has cooled a bit. It's in the 50s but partly sunny. People begin to arrive but at a much slower pace than usual.
3:00pm: It remained steady throughout the day but slow overall. We couldn't help but be disappointed. It is so much work getting ready and then this seems like such a letdown.
4:00pm: We're closed for the day. The evaporator is cooling down and we're evaluating the day. Everyone agrees that it was the slowest Open House Weekend on record.
5:15pm: Everyone heads downtown to the Senior Citizens Center for a maple-glazed roast pork dinner with mashed potatoes, dressing, gravy, baby carrots, applesauce and homemade rolls. There was maple walnut ice cream with fresh maple syrup for dessert. Poultney has a maple festival going on in the downtown all day and the general consensus was that there weren't as many people around town as usual either.
6:15pm: We say "good evening" to our helpers in the parking lot and our family heads for home to get ready to do it all again tomorrow.
6:30pm: We're home in the living room again, with a floor covered in sleepy dogs, having some good conversation. It seems so good to have the family together.
Sunday, March 25
5:00am: Rich heads for the sugarhouse to make more of his maple cinnamon buns.
6:00am: I head down to the sugarhouse to see if I can help with anything. He agrees to come back around 8am and make pancakes for the whole family.
8:00am: The griddle is hot and the batter is mixed. Everyone is up and Rich starts making pancakes. The fresh maple syrup pours freely and there's no better breakfast around here, unless you have time to add some fresh blueberries to the pancakes!
9:30am: Ed arrives to gather the purchases that his friends and neighbors in New Jersey have asked him to bring back. He has a long trip ahead, so says goodbye. Everyone else is busy getting things ready in a repeat of yesterday. Everyone knows that Sunday is usually the slower of the two days but we're still hopeful. The weather is not as nice. It's gotten rather cool and raw with a drizzle now and then.
3:00pm: We worked hard all day, but there were very few people and long stretches of nothing to do but eat! The boys from up the road had a great time making maple cotton candy though. I think they will be in sugar shock for a week after all they ate! Everyone loved the maple sugar-on-snow. Our sons and Rich's parents head home early, as they all have quite a ways to go.
4:00pm: As we close the doors and cool down the evaporator, we realize that it doesn't really matter that the weekend was a disappointment. We just had the most wonderful weekend filled with incredible camaraderie with family and friends. That's what gets you through the hard times.
5:15pm: We're back at the house with our friends from the next town. Supper is waiting for us. Our youngest son put a moose roast, compliments of their neighbor, in the crock pot with potatoes and onions. We steam some fresh broccoli and sit down to the most delicious pot roast imaginable.
7:00pm: They leave. I leave the dishes and we watch a funny, mindless movie while one tired Beagle (probably in sugar shock from being fed maple cotton candy by kids) lays on top of us, and then we head for bed.
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