Sugarmakers have differing methods

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WHITINGHAM -- Sugarmakers around Windham County have made some of the finest maple syrup in Vermont for centuries.

But how that syrup is made varies greatly from one operation to the next.

Some, like the Corse Farm in Whitingham, are at the cutting edge of technology with a state-of-the-art sugaring process. Others, like the Morse family at Maple Hill Farm, also in Whitingham, continue to produce fancy syrup in the same manner they did more than 50 years ago.

To study the contrasts between the two multi-generational farms, the Vermont Woodland Association (in a partnership with the Woodland Owners’ Association) hosted a specialized tour of the sugarhouses.

Every spring, the association picks a sugar house to visit because it remains such a strong part of Vermont culture, said Windham County Forester Bill Guenther.

"We usually try to pick something that’s a little different, and this year we decided that since we had not been out to this portion of the county for a while, we’d come out to Whitingham and we wanted to do a study in contrast," he said. "It’s basically a celebration of the fabric that makes Vermont what it is."

A group of nearly 20 onlookers joined Guenther on the tour, stopping first at the Corse maple and dairy farm. One of the county’s most extensive sugaring operations with more than 10,000 taps, the Corse family has produced maple syrup on the farm since 1918.

On the wall in the sugarhouse is an annual production report recording every year since World War I. The family produced 138 gallons in 1918, compared to 3,409 in 2010.

This sugaring season, owner Roy Corse said he has surpassed all production totals with 4,171 gallons as of Friday. He and his team celebrated with pizza and champagne.

While the farm still uses some buckets, the biggest part of the operation is done with tubing, Corse said. "Our tubing systems are all under vacuum, between 23 and 25 inches of vacuum if we have our way."

A unique reverse osmosis system is used to remove about 75 percent of the water from sap even before the boiling. While sap production with tubing is higher than buckets, the down side is tubing will oftentimes lead to a darker grade of syrup.

"I know that because for years, we had two sugarhouses, and we boiled the tubing sap [in the new evaporator] and we boiled the bucket sap in the other sugarhouse. We always made predominately fancy in the other sugarhouse, we made all the grade here," Corse said. "I don’t say the buckets are always fancy, but they tend to be."

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The family shut down the other sugarhouse, now producing up to 60 gallons an hour with the new Vermont-made Leader Evaporator with four pans and a system of external piping that Corse designed himself.

"The goal was to be able to separate sap so I could boil a high quality sap in one part of the evaporator while I was boiling a lower quality in another part," he said. The complex evaporator uses four custom-built 6-foot by 20-foot pans to separate the tubing sap (making a darker amber) than the bucket sap. But Corse can operate all four pans if so desired before the finished syrup is filtered through a larger press before it is packaged and sold.

Most of the Corse maple business is done through 30 wholesale accounts, but they also sell syrup in specially ordered containers at the farm or via mail order.

Just a few minutes down the street, the Morse farm operation is like stepping back in time.

The family has its production in a small sugarhouse located in the woods. It’s a short walk from the main house into the nearby forest spread with sugar maples decorated with old-fashioned buckets hanging from each tree.

Farm owner Steve Morse collects the sap, a delicate substance kept clean and cold, using a team of black Percheron horses and a historic Tomahawk wooden tank, one of only a handful still known to be in operation.

"This setup is pretty much the same as when my father bought the place in 1950. We, of course, moved up to stainless steel and so on, but the basic process is pretty much the same," Morse said. "I was brought up with the belief that maple syrup needed to be fancy, that’s what you were striving for. And I’m still pretty sure Vermont got its reputation for making the finest, fancy maple syrup in the world."

Like at the Corse Farm, Morse noticed a difference between the sap from tubing as opposed to from buckets. He said he was always disappointed with the tubing and could not get the nice "delicate-flavored" fancy grade syrup he liked.

Content with their fancy grade, the family cut back to concentrate on making the finest version they could, ensuring the sap gets into the evaporator within hours to convert as much sap as they can until the tank is empty.

Morse gathers the sap while his son Jason boils, collecting 270 gallons so far in 2011.

"This is as good as ever," he added. "Up until last year, we were doing pretty constantly a quart a tap with 90 to 95 percent fancy."

Morse’s Percherson horses are not only used to pull the sap sled, but they also are the brood mares that raise the Morgan-Percherson foals that are trained and sold at the farm.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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