by Julia Barstow
In the midst of a long day of boiling maple sap into syrup, Rick and Betsy Barstow will sometimes be surprised by a friend or neighbor stopping by their sugarhouse to lend a hand. Some come to help collect sap from the tanks and buckets, some bring in a load of wood to fuel the evaporators and others will bring a homemade meal to share. Rick began making maple syrup in Adamant in the 1970s; Betsy joined the operation when she moved to the area in 1988.
In the season of 1992, they were involved with Vermont refugee assistance and were housing three young men from El Salvador, one of whom had a degree in agriculture and could drive a tractor. “That year,” Betsy and Rick recall, “we had 2,200 taps, our biggest year. ‘Los tres hombres’ devised their own work schedule for gathering sap. They would have a late breakfast and work throughout the day. One especially productive day, they had 500 gallons of sap on the trailer and began to drive the tractor up the hill to the dump-off station. The trailer came unhitched, and it rolled across the road and into the cold waters of Sodom pond. Our then 15-month-old son proceeded to say his first Spanish word: ‘agua.’”
Betsy and Rick had been sugaring with a neighbor until they decided to build their own sugarhouse in 1993. Betsy recalls, “That year we weren’t quite together, so I suggested why don’t we boil open air? So we put up some posts and a roof and put the evaporator underneath. It was a less than 2-week season, as the weather became warm very fast.” In 1994 they completed building the sugarhouse with the help of friends, though during the sugaring season it still didn’t have sides. “Neighbors called the finished sugarhouse ‘The Sugar Palace’ because it included a sleeping loft for our two young children.”
By number of taps, the Barstow sugaring operation is much smaller now than the year of “los tres hombres.” Betsy and Rick feel that the current size of the operation is much more manageable. “Years ago,” Rick says, “there were times when we boiled till two or three in the morning when our operation was bigger. Then we would conk out in the loft where our young children were sleeping. Betsy was known to drop asleep occasionally on the woodpile in front of the evaporator. In recent years, we have downsized our operation and are now often done by 10 or 11 p.m.”
Despite the hard work and hours of labor that go into making maple syrup, Rick and Betsy love it. One night when they were still boiling long after midnight, Betsy remembers feeling “cold, wet, dirty, hungry and tired,” and asking herself, “why do we like sugaring so much?” Rick enjoys observing the transition from winter to spring that sugaring marks. “There is pleasure in when the weather starts to get warm enough and you start to tap and see those first drips of sap coming from the tree, and you know the spell of winter has broken.”
Though the process of making maple syrup has remained the same, Rick has noticed significant changes to the start and end dates of the season since he began sugaring forty years ago. “In the ‘70s we never even thought about beginning until after Town Meeting Day, and often it wouldn’t be warm enough to start tapping until the third week of March. We usually produced most of our syrup in the month of April, and the season was finished towards the end of April. Now we need to be ready to tap by the middle of February and we make most of our syrup in March.” He attributes this shift to climate change.
When asked about the recent changes to maple syrup grading in Vermont, Betsy said, “The changes might be a source of confusion for both producers and consumers, but like any change, people will become accustomed to it.”
This year they will be selling the maple syrup they produce at the Adamant Co-op and Hunger Mountain Co-op, as well as shipping syrup to customers around the country.