"So many people in Vermont do this and whether it is ten taps or thousands of taps, we can all talk the same language and we all have the same concerns, we’re all anticipating the season whether we end up with a quart or five hundred gallons,” says Fred Homer, an artist, rehabilitator of injured birds, and enthusiastic producer of Maple Syrup. His sugaring operation is not commercial, but rather a labor of love that yields enough syrup to share with family and friends. It is a ritual that he has performed every late winter-early spring for thirty years and his now-grown kids won’t hear of him stopping.
Homer is one of those people who seem like they’ve lived a million different lives. He has four grown children and is full of stories of his childhood in New Jersey, raising his kids, and all the jobs he has had from singing in bars to years spent as an educator. Now retired, he lives a quiet existence with his wife Deb Feiner up on their hill in Williamsville, Vermont. People bring him owls that have been hit by cars and orphaned baby birds. Homer feeds them formula in eyedroppers and mashed up dog food on popsicle sticks. He readily admits that if you were to put a cost factor on sugaring it would not make sense, “It’s ridiculous!” Yet there is something about it that makes Homer and so many other Vermonters set up their operations each year.
Sugaring is of course about the final product, but it is equally about the process; the time spent in nature, slowing down, gathering family and friends to celebrate the warming weather. The season lasts roughly six weeks and starts when the days get sunny and warm, but the temperatures dip back down below freezing at night. It is this process of thawing and freezing that makes the sap flow. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup and sometimes fifty gallons later in the season when the sap is less sweet. Many big commercial operations use tubing to collect the sap, but Homer does it the old fashioned way by hooking a metal bucket on each spile—essentially a stainless steel spout that serves as the tap. He makes the rounds to empty the buckets of slightly sweet, watery sap into gathering pails once or twice a day, depending on how fast it is flowing.
Homer calls his operation a classic backyard setup. His stove is made out of a sideways fifty-five gallon oil drum with a metal pan fitted on top and a stovepipe that points the smoke and ash away from the boiling pan. On a sunny spring day his son Cooper and his girlfriend—home for spring break—as well as a group of friends and family of all ages gather in the sugar bush, laughing, chatting, stoking the fire, and sipping beers. Homer stokes the fire with wood and filters the sap again as he pours it in to boil. For ten or twelve hours at a time he feeds the fire and skims off the foam and debris as the water evaporates. The sap slowly thickens, sweetens and darkens in color on its way to becoming syrup. There are no thermometers in Homer’s operation, just intuition and years of experience. When the syrup is getting close, Homer and his family transport it into the house in buckets where they finish boiling it on the stovetop and jar it.
With a cold beer stuck in the snow next to him, Homer reflects on the incredible satisfaction of sugaring, “I really think there is some sap in all of us. Maybe our circulatory system changes a little and something within us says we’re over the hump and gives a big sigh of relief.” He enjoys the festive as well as the solitary hours and days spent in the sugar bush experiencing the season change. “Here I am in the out-doors in the early spring; phoebes, redwing blackbirds, robins all coming in, geese are flying over... and when all is said and done you end up with a great product.” It is certainly peaceful breathing in the sweet steam and listening to the crackle of burning wood and plink-plinks of sap dripping into a freshly emptied metal bucket.