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"Sweetness in the Air" by Beth Weick, as published in North Country News, March 2010

The smoke stings my eyes…tears-down-my-cheeks type of sting. My throat burns, nose is dry, eyes hot, and – the telling clue – my hands sticky and black with soot.

Yes, it's sugaring season.

Which also means a sweet smell to the air, warm days, crackling wood. As I write this, the sun is just rising over Stinson and Carr to begin the day here at D Acres Organic Farm & Educational Homestead. The fire that I started by candlelight is now roaring, three pans and a warming pot hidden in the evaporating steam.

We began boiling March 8, but the process really started the week before, putting in taps (77 in total) and hanging buckets. We have a small and simple system here at D Acres: everything is done by hand from beginning to end. There are certain inefficiencies, but they are also the endearing qualities of the system, the fodder for rich stories once the sap is boiled and the syrup stored in the root cellar. Our tedious collection system and dubious woodstove also make the point that anyone can do this if you choose to, regardless of your set-up. Really. Some maple trees, taps, buckets, and a woodstove are all you need.

We started collecting sap within four days of tapping out, it was running so fast in this spring heat. Too busy to begin boiling right away, we could barely keep up with collecting buckets before they threatened to overflow. Each of us were out there in turn, carrying buckets of liquid gold as carefully as the slushy snow would let us. Visitors to the farm were forcefully encouraged to lend a hand. Friends, volunteers, even some boy scouts were part of the action. By the time the first boil came around, we had 160 gallons stockpiled. Before the morning was out, the count was up to 185. And still drip-drip-dripping into our smorgasbord of five-gallon buckets.

In our sugar shack, a poster is hung which describes the sap to syrup conversion process as follows: "it takes about 40 gallons of sap quickly boiled down" to make one gallon of syrup. The numbers are right on, and are a testament to what we are willing to do for sugar – more on that in a moment. It's the adverb in the sentence that gets me. "Quickly," it says. Well now, just for examples' sake, yesterday's tallies are as follows: 5:45am to 9:15pm, roughly 90 gallons of sap boiled to a watery syrup that still needs to be finished indoors on our stove. We're figuring on 2+ gallons of syrup from that batch, and that's after 15 hours, 30 minutes and an imposing quantity of wood. Evaporation is not, on our old woodstove to say the least, what one would willingly term quick.

Nevertheless, the time, effort and wood required for this tasty endeavor does signal the value of sweetness. At D Acres, maple trees are our only source of sugar currently (bees and their honey have come and gone over the years). When we speak of eating with the seasons, we're not just referring to tomatoes in summer and squash for the winter. Sugar, too, is part of the seasonal equation. Maple syrup is something we can only make during these few weeks of the year. When I write "liquid gold" I'm not being terribly dramatic: syrup is something we treasure, and have to make it last the whole year through. Long hours amidst steam and woodsmoke make for a quick lesson in sugar's value, and provide ample reason to enjoy it sparingly.

Just how sparingly will be determined by the vagaries of local weather. We'll see what this season has in store for us, and how many gallons we can store on our shelves before the sap sours. Meanwhile, we easily anticipate the sweet treat that awaits us for the next twelve months.

And if you want to carry a bucket or two, just swing on by the farm…

Beth Weick is a resident of D Acres Organic Farm & Educational Homestead, a non-profit service organization. She first came to the farm in April 2008 as an intern, and now focuses her work on gardening, tending to the animals, and writing. Learn more about the programs at D Acres by visiting www.dacres.org.

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