“Sugaring and being a Vermonter — they kind of go hand in hand, if you’re a real Vermonter,” according to Doug Edwards.
Edwards has a maple sugaring operation in Jeffersonville, the town where he grew up. He expects his 27,000 or so taps will collect 15,000 gallons of sap this year. That is what has happened during the last two years.
He said you can count on about half a gallon of maple syrup for every tap.
Edwards has been sugaring since he was 6 or 7 years old. As a young boy, he helped his great uncle, grandfather and others gather sap.
Maple sugaring has been in his family’s blood as far back as he knows. His great-grandparents were in the maple sugaring business and lived in Vermont, but he’s not sure about his great-great-grand parents.
Either way, they’ve been doing it for quite a while.
Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk — Abenaki Nation, said people that moved to the area from Europe learned about maple sugaring from Native Americans.
“There are journal entries saying they watched our people tap trees and boil syrup. We’ve been doing it long before the Europeans,” Stevens said.
It’s hard to know how long the Abenaki have been collecting maple sap, according to Stevens. Stories about it are part of their verbal history.
“Maple syrup is part of our long history. I can’t tell you how far it goes back, but I’m assuming it goes back as long as time itself,” Stevens said.
Stevens said it’s documented that Indigenous people were collecting maple sap and boiling it down before 1600, because there are citations from Europeans in the early 1600s talking about watching Native Americans boiling maple sap down to make it more concentrated.
He thinks people might have boiled their food in water and sap they had collected because they noticed the maple sap made food sweeter and speculated that someone forgot and left a bucket holding water and sap near a fire.
When remembered, the water might have boiled off leaving syrup or maybe even maple sugar, he said.
Stevens doesn’t think his people spent a lot of time collecting maple syrup because it was a lot of work and, until they had metal kettles, difficult to boil down.
When Native Americans in New England moved toward mass production, they used a spile, a flat piece of wood Stevens compared to a tongue depressor, to collect the maple sap. The spile would have been inserted into a cut in a maple tree and the sap would have run down it, dripping into a bucket.
The original buckets the Abenaki used were typically made of birch bark.
Mark Isselhardt, maple specialist with the University of Vermont Extension, said by 1809 at least two-thirds of Vermont families were producing maple sugar, many of them making more than they needed in order to trade or sell.
Isselhardt works out of the Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill, which was founded in 1946 on more than 200 acres devoted to studying maple production.
“It was one of the few cash crops and was the first crop coming in the spring, right around Town Meeting Day, when taxes are being decided, so it was an important thing for sure,” he said.
These early Vermont farming families were producing maple sugar, not syrup, Isselhardt said.
“The advent of pourable syrup is really more of a relatively modern product. Hard sugar is much more stable. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated,” Isselhardt said. “It wasn’t until later in the 1800s that retail packaging and marketing of syrup overtook hard sugar.”
In the early 1800s, cane sugar was more expensive than maple sugar.
“There was a time when cane sugar was really a luxury item. So, if you had cane sugar, it was something that you saved for a special occasion. Partly because it had to come from so far away, it was limited in quantity,” Isselhardt said.
At that time maple sugar was about half the cost of cane sugar, with maple sugar costing 10 or 11 cents a pound, cane sugar costing 20 cents a pound, he said.
Documents, Isselhardt said, show even in the early 1800s, some farmers were looking for another way of gathering maple sap than having to walk to all of their trees to empty buckets. Some tried collecting maple sap with a wooden trough system, but most collected it with buckets hung on taps until the mid-1900s.
The advent of plastic tubing came in the early 1960s, and tubes were often medical grade made for things like blood transfusions, Isselhardt said.
And it lay on the ground. Isselhardt said, “If you did that today people would talk, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’”
Tubing was not invented to increase production, he said, rather to save on labor. But when the plastic used for tubing got more robust, people realized they could put vacuum pumps on the lines and production would really go up, Isselhardt said.
Edwards remembers collecting maple sap in buckets as a young boy for his grandfather, who still used that system.
“Nowadays if you do a good job and keep the vacuum tight, you have more good years than you used to,” Edwards said, and having vacuum pumps has changed the kind of weather that’s best for producing maple sap.
“With vacuum systems you don’t want colder nights so much as in the old days,” Edwards said.
Old-time maple syrup producers wished for a warm day and freezing night every day, but now a freeze every two or three days works fine, Edwards said.
The 2019 census found the population of Vermont was almost 625,000. Isselhardt said about 3,000 of these Vermonters are producing maple syrup, meaning the number has dropped from almost 66 percent to less than half of 1 percent.
But, maple syrup is still an important part of Vermont’s economy. Isselhardt said 2019 figures show that almost $58 million worth of maple products were sold.
Isselhardt said a 2012 study found that maple syrup production contributed more than $300 million in economic activity. That economic activity included money from tourism generated by maple syrup production in Vermont.
There has been an explosion in the amount of maple syrup Vermont produces in the last 20 years, he said.
“Today, we are producing three and a half times the amount of syrup we were back then,” Isselhardt said.
Vermont has gone from producing an average of about 500,000 gallons a year in the late 1990s to more than 2 million gallons last year, Isselhardt said.
Last week, Edwards said, the sap was already running from his trees.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “You’re always looking forward to getting started and you’re always looking forward to when you’re all done.”