Last month we were in the depths of winter, and Stephen drew his Spanish-speaking mouse riding on a snowmobile. Last weekend we had a blizzard. Today it’s sunny and sixty. There’s snow only on the north sides of buildings. Robins and bluebirds have returned to the valley. The mud has nearly dried up. I have to go out and set up a corner of the barn for the new chicks, which arrive in the mail next week.
It’s so strange to watch spring come to a new farm! So many changes! My crocuses are blooming in the sheltered nooks of Foundation Farm, but there’s barely a sign of the bulbs Marsha planted over here. There are more trees and more birds over there; more sky and more wind over here. I know what to look and listen for over there; here I have to learn all over again.
Full-scale sugaring is one of the changes. We fooled around with it at Foundation Farm, tapping a few trees, hanging buckets by hand, setting up a simple outdoor hearth to do the boiling off. Made a gallon or so for ourselves. It was fun, sloshing through snow to gather buckets and keeping fires going, at just the time when you’re stir-crazy and ready to get outside. Finally we stopped, because we never had extra firewood. It takes a lot of firewood. Next time you wonder why real maple syrup is $30 a gallon, consider that it’s been boiled down 40 to 1. You’re not buying sap, you’re buying firewood.
Thirty bucks a gallon can pay off the property taxes, if you have enough trees to make 200 gallons, which we do. Ken Hunt has sugared here for years — Ken, nephew of John the former owner, son of Roger who still lives in the trailer. (Are you keeping all these Hunts straight? I still have to introduce you to Mitch, but not this month.)
Anyway, in the sugarhouse is a huge arch (which is what you call the big wood burner) and evaporating pan. Ken has strung blue plastic lines throughout the sugarbush on the Curtis hill. The lines run from each tap down into connector lines that end up at huge plastic gathering tanks just above the Curtis barn. On sunny March days there’s a waterfall (sapfall) pouring into those tanks.
Ken hauls the full tanks around to the sugarhouse, pumps them into a feeder tank, fills the evaporator and starts the fire. The sap boils so hard it dances. Steam pours out the opening in the roof, a cheery sight that brings pickup trucks into the muddy yard in an old neighborhood tradition. Wander in, stand around and tell tales, set up a grill for hotdogs, crack open a beer, have some womenfolk make plain raised doughnuts, which you dip in hot syrup. The Hunt clan seems to have a talkative gene. I’d come home at night to the sight of the steaming sugarhouse, mosey over to see how things were going, and come out after an hour, late for dinner and not too hungry anyway.
There’s lots to do while you talk. Stoke the fire, check the syrup (scooping it up at the most concentrated end and watching how it beads off the scooper — takes a practiced eye). Run it out hot into a bucket, pour it through a cloth strainer, check its grade (by comparing to a color chart — fancy is the lightest and costliest and comes at the beginning of the sap run, grade C is the darkest and comes last; around here everyone prefers grade B because it has the most taste.) Bottle it up or store it in a drum for later bottling. Stoke the fire, tell a joke, comment on the town meetin’. Get on the tractor, run the empty sap tank back, pick up a full one.
The sap run started early, first of March, as it does now with global warming. (The old wisdom was you’d start sugaring on town meetin’ day, the second week of March.) There are four sugarhouses on my new way home, so I know by the steam pouring out of them that our sugarhouse will be steaming too. (By the way, that enormous amount of steam pouring out is why you don’t do this boiling in your house. I’m trying to figure out how we might catch the waste energy and use it to heat a greenhouse or something.) It was just about a perfect sugar season this year, thawing days and freezing nights, snow renewed by occasional blizzards, just what sends the sap upward. (We had a long philosophical discussion in the sugar house one evening about exactly what it is that sends the sap upward.) The run lasted about 3 weeks. Ken made 150 gallons, low because he put in only 800 taps. We could do twice as many, if we want to gear up to maximum production.
Sugaring is God’s gift to Vermont — it takes place when things become too muddy to log and before things become dry enough to plow. The only other thing you can do in March is lambing, which I haven’t got back into yet. I’m hoping some Cobb Hillian will want to go partners with me in sheep. I miss my woollies.
So now the run is over, Ken’s cleaning out the equipment and preparing to take down the sugarhouse and move it over to the Curtis side. We could leave it where it is — our housing plan elegantly avoids it — but it will be in the middle of a construction zone and funny looking as the front door to our community. And, as Ken says, “it’ll be sweet to have the sap run down the lines straight to the sugarhouse and not have to do all that hauling.”
Things are gearing up toward what we hope will be groundbreaking in June. We will have a final cost estimate by next month. (We’re preparing for the next sticker shock, with interest rates going up and construction hot, causing shortages of everything from lumber to electricians.) We’re drawing up legal documents — loan agreements for our lenders, purchase-and-sales agreements for our buyers, mortgage prequalifications. We’re pushing for permit completion. We’d like to have 18 of the 22 units sold before construction starts, giving us a year before move-in to sell the last 4. We’re up to 16, and I think I know who’ll be #17. Anyone out there want to be #18? Choice of units is shrinking fast. Get ‘em while they last.
Now that the ground is clear, we’re beginning to feel the tug of the fastwater flowing into the nonstop rapids of the growing season. Stephen and Kerry have the hoop house filling with sprouting onion and leek and celery and celeriac. (This is the first year in decades that I haven’t had south windows full of pansies and petunias — till we get our act together here, I’m going to have to buy bedding plants.) Four of the yearling Jerseys have been bred now, with the fifth coming into heat this week — milking starts next fall. In addition to the three baby Jerseys Stephen and Kerry acquired last December, they now have two Hereford-Holstein bull calves, Ruben and Seth, to raise for beef. We’re not getting into the beef business, but till the dairy herd fills out, we’ll have extra pasture; we might as well keep it grazed.
Marsha and I are pruning the neglected old apple trees here on the Hunt side; I’ve already pruned and mulched the 15 new apples and pears I planted the last two years. (More are coming in about a month.) We have to make a plan for the garden on the south side of the house, and get the garden spot covered with soil amendments and chicken house litter, ready for plowing. Phil and Beth, who live across the field, assure me that the ground dries out fast here — the opposite of what I’m used to at clayey Foundation Farm.
Oh, it is going to be so strange, farming in a new place!
Amanda and Libby are still living here, but looking for their own place. Amanda has landed a teaching job at the Waldorf school that Libby attends; she’ll start in April — that’s great good news for them both.
Marsha is researching bees in preparation for starting up some hives this spring.
Marsha and I have taken over the chicken operation, after a winter’s sabbatical while Michael and Amanda and Libby took care of the biddies. I’m glad to have farm work to do again. The other day when I was out there, a big hawk swooped down, almost into the chicken yard. Fortunately he wasn’t after the chickens; he was chasing the fat pigeons that roost on the silos, and he almost caught one in midair. I hope the pigeons (which we didn’t have at Foundation Farm, but then we didn’t have hawks either) continue to serve as decoys, so the hawk doesn’t start zeroing in on chickens.
I spent a weekend in Washington DC with the shrimp team of the Sustainability Institute in what turned out to be a surprisingly good meeting with experts on the Gulf shrimp fishery. The sponsor was the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, fondly known as “nymphs”) and we met at American University, thanks to the help of John Richardson, a long-time systems colleague and reader of this newsletter. For three days Chris and Denise, our modelers, led eight shrimp fishery experts through the process of building a preliminary model of the fishery, teaching the systems concepts and modeling technique as we went.
It was fascinating! We learned so much about shrimp, and about the economics of trawlers, and about processing and shipping, the whole commodity chain. The participants seemed to have fun learning the modeling — plus learning from each other, which is one of the points of the exercise. Everyone involved in the system sees just his or her small part of it. No one understands why the whole system behaves the way it does. (Here’s how it behaves: 30% overcapacity in boats, no profits, enormous yearly variations, huge destruction of other fisheries through bycatch, steady erosion of habitat, competition from cheap aquaculture imports, and consumers having no idea what they’re eating or where it came from or how much damage was done along the way.)
On the last day Chris and Denise and I divided the group into three, Chris worked with those who knew the boat economics, Denise with those who understood the processing and marketing, and I got to work with the shrimp biologists on the reproduction and habitat parts of the model. Again, I learned so much! They convinced me that shrimp cannot be overfished, because they reproduce so prolifically and so fast — but that the danger to the fishery comes from messing up their coastal nursery habitat — which is happening all along the Gulf through dredging and development and pollution and boating and the great Dead Zone where the Mississippi River disgorges the washed-off chemicals from Midwest farms into a widening circle in the Gulf where almost nothing can survive.
The fish project meets the corn project!
These commodity projects are all going better than I ever expected. And having NMFS interested is an unexpected boon. It means we feed our information right into the place where national fishery policy is made.
I have to end this letter on a sad note, but sweetly sad, I guess. One of the Founding Subscribers to this newsletter (back when there were exactly 2 subscribers) has left us at the age of nearly 92. He was my uncle, Artemas Edward Judd. He lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where my mother, his sister-in-law, also lives. She was with him when he died. Her call came last Sunday, as I was grading my final course papers, so I turned in my grades Monday morning and got on a plane to Tulsa. By the time I arrived at my mom’s, my cousins Eddie and Lois and Lois’s husband George (also subscribers) were there. The funeral was the next day.
Uncle Ed was a teacher, mainly high school English, though he pinch-hit on other subjects too. He loved classical music and taught me much about it. I remember going to a concert with him at the orchestra shell in Grant Park on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. He built a log cabin in Minnesota, which I was thrilled to visit when I was a kid. He presided over the table at countless Thanksgivings and Christmases and Easters. In later years, as he grew frailer, he was a sweet and faithful presence, mind sharp as a tack, surprisingly patient with the infirmities and indignities of great old age. He gave a speech at his 90th birthday party that moved me to tears — a speech of gratitude for his life and all his blessings.
It will be so strange to go to Tahlequah and not find him there. It will be strange for my mother not to get a phone call from him every morning (they used to make jokes about him still being there, despite the doctor’s expectations) and not to take half a grapefruit over to him every afternoon. “Here comes my Florida sunshine!” he’d say happily as she came in the door.?
So many changes. Like Uncle Edward, I just need to accept them, with faith and gratitude for life and all its blessings.