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(Host) It won’t be long till sugaring and commentator Vern Grubinger is already looking forward to this annual North Country Rite of Spring.

(Grubinger) It’s hard to be number one when you’re small. So don’t expect to find Vermont on any ‘top ten’ lists of agricultural products. Except one. Maple syrup.

Year in and year out, Vermont is the nations’s largest producer of maple syrup, responsible for a third of the entire U.S. crop. We have two thousand sugarmakers who produce half a million gallons of syrup, in a good year, worth 15 million dollars directly to Vermont’s economy, and many millions more indirectly by supporting tourism and specialty foods.

Vermont’s climate is ideal for growing sugar maples and for getting sap to flow in late winter. As a result, sugaring has had a long and proud history in our state. From the early pioneers, to the hill farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries, right up to today’s increasingly high-tech sugar houses, the ritual of collecting and boiling sap has been an integral part of Vermont’s culture.

Of course, native Americans had been making maple sugar long before Europeans arrived. They slashed the bark of maple trees to get the sap which they then boiled down into sugar cakes. Early settlers copied this technique but later started drilling small holes into the trees and inserting hollow wooden tubes to collect the sap into buckets.

Early on, farmers produced only enough maple sugar for their families, but gradually it became an important source of income. Wooden buckets were replaced by metal, and flat pans were designed to more efficiently boil off the maple sap into sugar.

In the late 1800’s the maple syrup evaporator was invented. It consists of a long, flat pan, with channels that allow a slow stream of maple sap to be added at one end and fully finished maple syrup to emerge at the other. Since the 1970’s, many sap collection buckets have given way to plastic tubing that carries sap directly from the trees to a collection tank.

Maple sugar was common in many households of the United States until the federal tax on imported cane sugar was repealed in 1890 and white sugar soon flooded the market. Although the use of maple sugar declined, maple syrup started to grow in popularity for use on pancakes, waffles, and French toast. Today, maple syrup production is still referred to as ‘sugaring.’

A normal sugaring season lasts 4 to 6 weeks, sometimes starting as early as February in southern Vermont and lasting into late April in northern Vermont. As daytime temperatures rise above freezing, pressure develops inside the tree, causing sap to flow out through a wound or tap hole.

When temperatures fall below freezing at night, suction develops inside the tree, causing water from the soil to be drawn into the roots and up through the tree’s sapwood. This replenishes the sap, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period. When temperatures stop fluctuating between freezing at night and thawing during the day, sap stops flowing.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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