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The sweetness of March | News, Sports, Jobs

In March, the Winter Pact begins to falter, no longer a treaty anyone or anything wants to yield to. Sometimes in the mornings you hear that the birds have returned – at least the brave ones, and on a warm March day you glimpse buds on the treetops and you hear the collective sigh of humanity riding in the northeast wind.

In March we are done with winter, even if winter is not done with us yet.

Sugaring season has started about now, the juice is flowing and the first signs of something sweet have appeared, as if winter is trying to show us that it’s not all bad. Maple syrup is proof that something good can come from a season that prides itself on being a bully.

The best syrup I’ve ever tasted comes from a land my husband owns with some friends near Cooperstown. They tap the maples there and increase their syrup yield every year. They’ve built something of a sugar house and they stand outside for a weekend or two every March and boil down the juice.

If you’re ever wondering why syrup is so expensive, consider this little fact: the sap to syrup ratio for the sugar maple is 40 to 1. That means if you want a gallon of syrup, you’d better have forty gallons of juice to cook with bring down. And that means you better have plenty of trees to tap into. So next time you open that syrup jar I want you to think of all the time and effort and patience and love that went into this gooey stuff. Yesterday my grandson poured a half gallon onto his waffle and left the table with a full half cup of syrup floating on his plate. He should have gone to family prison for that, and I’m not kidding. If it weren’t for the butter lumps swimming in the syrup I would have thought of pouring it back into the pitcher. That’s a crime against humanity right there. Thou shalt not waste Cooperstown syrup.

It turns out that lonely maples are the best trees to tap. Not the maples thronging the woods and competing for resources, but that one beautiful maple standing alone in your yard – it’s your type. Their juice is more plentiful and much sweeter, and why not? It’s like you’re a recruit tree, with your own land, nobody to bother you, living your life on your own terms – a real one percenter hogging all the resources around like the one fat pig on a farm or a rich man on his lavish estate outside of town.

These open grown trees can produce half a gallon of syrup (15 to 20 gallons of sap) in a season, while trees growing in a woodland environment will generally produce about a liter of syrup (about 10 gallons of sap). In addition to the greater sap volume and sweetness, open-grown trees are easier to work with because they are more accessible.

What I love about farming is that it takes wisdom to be good at it, and since wisdom is hard to come by these days, not everyone can pinch a maple or grow an eggplant well. You need to know when to turn on that faucet, usually in the spring when daytime temperatures are above freezing while nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. The exact time depends on the height and location of your trees and your region. In Pennsylvania and the southern regions of New York, like ours, the first sap flow traditionally occurs in mid to late February. In northern regions and at higher elevations, the season often begins in early to mid-March. The sap usually flows for 4 to 6 weeks or as long as the freezing cold nights and warm days last.

My favorite sugar town is Vermont, where some of the old syrup makers have ties to our country’s Founding Fathers. They’ve been passing down land and secrets for generations, and they’re old school. They wear overalls and hats with earmuffs, have the great Yankee accents, and trudge through the woods in their LL Bean boots. I know two of these manufacturers who retired last year after 60 years of making syrups. Their grandchildren are running the shop now and they have their laptops out on the farm and they are looking at charts and graphs and they are going to make this a millennial operation if it’s the last thing they do. It will be a place made famous by social media and pretentious images on Instagram.

I’ll miss thinking about those old brothers trudging through the woods in spring. They’re the last greats up there in New England. They told me sugaring should stay wild and pure. It’s about the wisdom that comes from doing something. Authenticity cannot be faked. If you try, it will be evident in every bite or in the puddle of syrup on your grandson’s plate.

Real people make really good syrup. That will never change.

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