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Items of the Month: March 2010

Published: March 01, 2010 by Sophia Lloyd

The March Sugarmaking Tradition

Boiling sap outdoors, Tennie Toussaint photographs

View of an outdoor sugar making operation. Pictured are sap buckets, a boiler over a wood-fire, logs for the fire, and an axe for cutting wood.

Group with horses in front of a sugarhouse, Tennie Toussaint photographs

Horses pulling sap into the sugarhouse.

Did you know that Vermont produces more maple syrup than any other U.S. state? In 2009 we produced 920 thousand gallons of syrup - more than double that of the runner-up, Maine, which produced 395 thousand.

In New England, sugaring season happens between late February and early April, during the spring thaw. Sap flows most optimally when temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise to around 50 degrees F during the day. If you break a twig off of the end of a maple branch on a sunny spring day, chances are you'll soon see sap dripping out! Consequently, the best 'sugarbushes' consist of stands of sugar maples on south-facing slopes; these trees will have maximum exposure to spring sunlight during the day, and thus will ensure the longest possible sugaring season.

Before New England was settled by colonists, Native Americans were learned sugarmakers; collecting sap in birch bark buckets and heating it in earthenware containers in order to reduce it to syrup. Colonists soon caught on to the practice, eventually modifying sap collection technology through the use of metal buckets and evaporators. They also incorporated domesticated livestock, using draft animals in the transportation of sap from the woods to the sugar house.

Maple syrup and maple sugar are now gourmet food items, but in the 17th and 18th centuries maple sugar was the standard sweetener in New England kitchens!

Today, many maple syrup producers have outfitted their sugarbushes with vast networks of plastic pipelines that carry sap directly from every tree to a central holding tank. This circumvents the activity of outfitting each tree with its own bucket, and hence the involved process of transporting dozens of sap-filled buckets over the snowy forest terrain to the sugar house.

There is, however, still a thriving cottage industry, and many families and small farms still collect sap in buckets and boil it down in small sugar shacks. Some even still use horses or oxen! Despite the scale of our maple syrup industry today, small-scale sugarmaking and community maple festivals continue to represent sugaring season in Vermont.

Maple Week at the UVM Libraries

With the help of a grant from the Agriculture Network Information Center, UVM Libraries has undertaken several initiatives relating to the culture, history and ecology of maple syrup production. We have created a Maple Syrup Research Website and are celebrating its launch with Maple Week at the end of March.

Maple Week will feature many events, including a Library Exhibit, a Maple Cook Off, and a lecture by Middlebury College Professor John Elder on the impact of climate change on the maple industry. More information is available on the Maple Syrup website.

The CDI will be adding collections of maple-related materials in upcoming months, and will soon be contributing to the National Agricultural Library's digital library.