It shouldn’t be surprising that during this most capricious of springs (or non-springs), they are still sugaring at the Osborne sugarhouse in Island Pond.
Jim and I went up last Tuesday with Bryant and Trine Brink to see how their season was going.
Winters last late in the Northeast Kingdom, and it is later still in this northeast-facing sugarbush.
Jon Osborne, son-in-law of Stowe’s Paige Savage and David Stackpole and husband of their daughter Kate, and brother Troy run the maple syrup business.
Ten months a year, Jon works with the Vermont Land Trust, and Troy is an architect. But for two or so sleepless months, they are in the woods tending 15 miles of plastic pipeline, replacing taps, shoveling snow and boiling their certified organic maple syrup.
Sugaring was the dream of their father, Gary, who took early retirement from the U.S. Border Patrol to make it happen. For two years, the three spent their non-snow months nursing the long-neglected 44-acre sugarbush to health, putting in a road and underground power, sawing lumber for the sugarhouse with a portable mill, and then constructing the stately building designed by Troy.
It is a work of love, with beautiful proportions and handsome details of wide, free-form pine corner boards and maple-leaf cutouts in pertinent places.
The first year of sugaring was 2009. Gary died last year and now his sons tend his legacy.
Contemporary sugaring equipment is a far cry from traditional, and the Osborne brothers have the very latest. There is no horse-drawn sled working its way bucket by bucket through the maple grove, then ferrying gathered sap to the sugarhouse. Rather, plastic pipe delivers it straight from tree to boiling equipment by gravity feed. Vacuum pumping through the lines encourages sap production. Reverse osmosis removes 80 percent of the water from sap prior to boiling. Without it, it takes 43 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup; with it, it takes 8 to 10.
More efficient boiling means oil can be used to fire the final evaporation process instead of wood. When everything is running smoothly, a half-gallon of oil will produce a gallon of syrup.
Of course, in sugaring nothing runs smoothly. The process is capricious — sap runs in full flood, then the temperature plummets and the trees shut down, maybe for a day, maybe for a week. The Sunday night before our arrival, Jon had boiled until 2 Monday morning, then started the nightly two-hour wash down that includes every piece of equipment. He fell into bed after 4 a.m.
A moose visits regularly, and in a confrontation between webbing of plastic pipe and moose, moose wins.
The first day they tapped this year was March 6. That night it began to snow, and snow, stopping at 3.5 feet. Troy drove their John Deere tractor with plow 6 miles to Island Pond to clear his mother’s home and drive, and then 6 miles back to camp to keep their road open. Their mom, Janet, called in the morning to say, “See you in June.” She’s almost right.
“It’s been a SOB of a winter with all the snow,” Jon says. “Tapping the trees, keeping the lines cleared, it has been really hard.” Now, in the melting snow of late spring, it is impossible to get around in the woods. The snow is too wet for snowshoes and too deep for boots.
He has been at the sugarhouse 24 hours a day for six weeks, misses Kate and his kids, and expects the season to run into the second week in May. Someone has to be there all the time — there are too many machines with pumps and check valves that need constant attendance.
I had a little trouble wrapping my head around the concept of “certified organic” maple syrup; tree sap boiled to syrup sounded organic to me. Jon explained that being certified involves three criteria: The trees must be under a sustainable forest management plan; everything that comes in contact with the sap must be food-grade (underline “everything,” and think from grade of plastic piping to soaps used to wash all equipment); when boiling, a certified safflower oil de-foaming agent must be used. Not many syrup producers are willing to take the extra steps.
Production is thus far a bit down from last year and most of this year’s run has been medium grade. The latter is not a problem because, much as fancy has cachet, a maple syrup lover knows the best grade for waffles, French toast and ice cream is medium.
Retail and wholesale trade of Osborne Maple Syrup is handled directly. Much of the business is done online, through Facebook and at www.osbornemaple.com. Vermont clubs and businesses buy it; snowmobile clubs give it to cooperating landowners in thanks; dealer.com gave it as Christmas gifts; ICScoops/Stowe Ice Cream Co. use it in their hand-made ice creams. Several restaurants use it exclusively. The Elmore General Store carries it, and if you know Paige, David or Kate, they each keep a stash for sale.
Their newest twist is bottling syrup in reuseable quart, half-gallon and gallon containers. Troy also looks at the 75,000 gallons of pure distilled water the reverse osmosis machine produces each year that is currently discharged into a stream, and dreams of bottling it.
Maple syrup — for sweet dreams, a sweetheart, or a sweet tooth, I heartily recommend it.