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Sweet Taste of Spring

The season's first sap makes the finest maple syrup—but not without some backbreaking labors of love

For generations of rural Vermonters, the sound of sap dripping into galvanized metal buckets signaled the beginning of the end of winter. By now, most of those buckets, hung on maple trees, have been supplanted by plastic tubes snaking through the woods, but making maple syrup—"sugaring," it’s called—remains the premier rite of spring in the Green Mountain State. Some sugar-makers even manage to make a little money at it. Gordon Richardson, who helps run a 450-acre dairy farm in Hartland, is one of them.

On a fine March morning, Gordon goes from tree to tree drilling a small hole in each, and I hammer a plastic spout into every hole Gordon makes. The snow is three feet deep, but our snowshoes keep us on top. Once, Gordon catches himself starting to drill a hole at a level somewhat above his eyes. He smiles at his own near mistake. "Come back to pull that spout when the snow’s gone," he says, "and we’d need a ladder to reach it."

At 59, Gordon has never worked anywhere else. Four generations of Richardsons live on this farm. They include Gordon, his brother, Jim, their mother, Veneita, 85, Gordon’s son Scott and his wife, Amy, and their boys, Ezra, 5, Emory, 3, and Elliott, 11 months.

The Richardson farm does not have a single acre of flat land, which makes it tough for growing hay, but one compensation is a hilltop with a view that stretches to New Hampshire. Just down from the crest of this hill is the highest stand of the 6,000 maple trees the Richardsons tap. In a good year, the trees yield 80,000 gallons of sap, but that’s unusual, because the sugaring season is short and notoriously unreliable. It begins with the first thaws of March and ends in mid-April, when the leaf buds swell and the sap turns bitter.

Winter this year lingers beyond all notions of decency. It isn’t until early April that a spell of sunny days and frosty nights finally gets the sap running. When I go back to help collect some buckets hanging from the Richardsons’ trees, Jim drives the big John Deere tractor with chains on the tires, and the workers ride behind in the wagon with the sap tanks. We pull out of the barnyard and go up through patches of woods and white meadows. The sun and the snow are dazzling. Judging by the high spirits of the crew, you might think we’re out for a picnic.

We get over that soon enough. There’s so much hopping on and off the wagon that it isn’t practical to wear snowshoes, so we have to wallow through the knee-deep snow to the trees and then wallow back carrying buckets full of sap. By late afternoon, we’ve poured hundreds of gallons into the wagon tanks, and our happy chatter has long since dried up. Finally, it’s time to head back.

Down we go, past 50 cords of firewood, cut, split and stacked; past the manure piled high in a field; past wrapped bales of hay that were cut last summer from these very hills; past the barn full of Jersey cows munching on some of that hay; past Ezra and Emory, hard at work in the farmyard with their toy bulldozers; past the old farmhouse and on up to the sugarhouse to unload. I open a valve on the wagon, and sap gushes into a holding tank.

Once it gets to the sugarhouse, the sap is boiled down in the evaporator. It takes 40 gallons to make just one gallon of syrup, and it takes those 50 cords of firewood we pass on the way down to keep the evaporator fueled all season long.

The evaporator is an enormous, gleaming contraption, 6 feet wide, 18 feet long, 9 feet tall. To get it going, Gordon holds a match to some crumpled newspaper in the firebox, adds kindling, then tosses in an armful of wood. The fire crackles fiercely, and soon the sap in the open pan on top of the evaporator starts bubbling.

Jim assembles the syrup filter. A few minutes later, Anita Richardson, Gordon and Jim’s sister, gets an empty ten-gallon milk can ready to be filled. Outside, the clouds of steam pouring out of the sugarhouse’s cupola are so thick that shadows darken the snowbanks. The steam is a signal for relatives and neighbors to come lend a hand. Or just hang around. A sugarhouse is one of the most sociable places on earth. Now the conversation turns to last year, when the sap run was huge and the boiling went on night and day. "I worked 39 hours straight," Gordon recalls.

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