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Sugar makers just go with the flow

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STEVE MYRICK STOKES the fire while his brother Stan keeps an eye on the boil while sugaring in Bridport Monday afternoon. Many local producers are reporting a good start to the season. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — At the Myrick sugarhouse in Bridport, sugaring is a family affair.

Patriarch of the family Robert Myrick has been tapping maples there for over 60 years, his son Stan said. These days, Stan, his brother Steve, and a cousin turn out to help Robert and his wife, Rita. Together, the family mans a 1,000-tap operation that they hope will yield somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 gallons of maple syrup this year.

The science and technology of harvesting the sap that becomes maple syrup has certainly changed over those 60 years, but the Myricks’ motivation for taking to the sugarhouse remains rooted in family history.

“It’s something to do this time of year,” Stan Myrick said. “It’s just tradition, just trying to keep a family thing going.”

It’s a small operation in comparison with some of the county’s larger producers — but the Myricks, Stan said, aren’t in the business for the money.

“There’s not an awful lot of profit,” Stan Myrick said. “If we break even, we’re happy.”

But profits — and prices — are a much-talked-about topic these days in the maple syrup industry, an industry in which domestically Vermont paves the way. The state is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States.

This year’s harvest follows two poor seasons, when cold weather delayed sugaring. Last year, an unseasonably warm April truncated the tail end of the harvest, too. Quebec’s surplus of syrup was decimated, and that means that supply is down, all while maple syrup’s international popularity is on the rise.

Locally, half-gallons of organic syrup are selling at the Middlebury Natural Food Co-Op for between $34.19 and $36.99 a gallon — but this year’s crop is not on the shelves yet, so an employee this year said prices could fluctuate. Farther afield, syrup is selling in New York City in some stores for over $100 per gallon.

The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association is quoted in media reports as seeing restaurants and shops paying as much as $70 a gallon for syrup — up from about $40 last year.

Maurice Rheaume, the president of the Addison County Maple Sugarmakers’ Association, said he won’t know about prices with any certainty until the season is over. But in Starksboro, Don Dolliver is optimistic. He said Canada’s surplus — which helped hold down prices for several years — won’t be built up again for some time, so he expects prices will remain fairly steady at last year’s level.

For now, most local producers are simply focusing on a harvesting season they hope will run into early or mid-April.

Rheaume said the sap is running well at his sugarbush in Middlebury, though it’s a little less sweet this year than in the past. Weather during the maple trees’ growing season affects the sweetness of the sap.

Now, during the height of the season, Rheaume processes between 4,000 and 5,000 gallons of maple sap every day. It takes roughly 40 gallons of the watery sap to produce one gallon of syrup, though that ration varies depending on the sugar content of the sap. Rheaume hopes to produce between 1,200 and 1,500 gallons of syrup this year.

“Fifteen hundred would be a very good season,” he said.

In Leicester, Andy Hutchison is managing 3,000 taps. His operation has grown since he began harvesting syrup in 1989 with “about a dozen (taps) on the lawn.”

Like Rheaume, Hutchison said the season is off to a promising start.

“The first harvest of the year is exciting,” he said, though he acknowledged there’s a downside to sugaring: the lack of sleep. These days, he’s in the sugarhouse until midnight.

Dolliver, who makes his living sugaring and operates 6,200 taps, agreed that the season can be exhausting. Come 2 a.m. most mornings this time of year, he’s on his four-wheeler head to the sugarshack and check on equipment.

Still, he said the weather makes the job a treat at times.

“After coming out of the winter, it feels good for everybody,” Dolliver said.

Up from the valley, there’s still snow on the ground in Lincoln, and sugar makers like Ben Shepard are just getting started.

According to Shepard, who manages 8,000 taps, the season all boils down — no pun intended — to weather.

Unlike some Addison County residents who are wishing for spring’s fast arrival, sugar makers are hoping that temperatures won’t rise too quickly. Rheaume said that temperatures in the 40s during the day, rather than the 50s, are ideal, and of course sugar makers will continue to hope for nighttime temperatures that dip below freezing.

“You need moisture, you need low pressure,” Shepard said. “Warm days, freezing nights.”

And Shepard said he hopes the abundant sunshine the county saw early this week disappears behind the clouds, at least for a little while. The sun, he explained, is what causes the trees to bud — and cuts short the sap run.

“But for the date, we’re doing really well,” Shepard said. “I’m very happy with where we are for the time of year.”

Dolliver agreed, but said it’s too soon to make any serious predictions about the harvest.

“The thing about sugaring is that you never know ’til it’s over how it’s going to turn out,” he said.

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