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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Harsh Season's Sweet Rewards: Vermont Maple Syrup

Air Date: Week of March 27, 1998

The sap is flowing in the maple trees of the northern forests, and this year that is not something to be taken for granted. The unusually harsh ice storm that ripped through northern New England and Eastern Canada in January damaged many maples putting many sap farmers out of business, at least for this season. But Robert Horrigan is one of the lucky ones. His plot escaped the brunt of the storm, and so his family's time-honored tradition of tapping and boiling is well underway. Producer Steve Delaney visited the Horrigan farm in Fairfield, Vermont and sent us this report.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The sap is flowing in the sugarbushes of the northern forests and this year that is not something to be taken for granted. The unusually harsh ice storm that ripped through northern New England and eastern Canada in January damaged many maple trees and put many farmers out of business, for this season at least. But Robert Horrigan is one of the lucky ones. His farm escaped the brunt of the storm, and so his family's time-honored tradition of tapping and boiling is well underway. Producer Steve Delaney visited the Horrigan farm in Fairfield, Vermont, and sent us this report.

(Echoing metal sounds)

DELANEY: The sap is running in the sugarbush, and so the Horrigans are in the woods turning tree juice into Vermont maple syrup.

HORRIGAN: You can't tap too early. You've got to tap at the right time, and then you've got to be ready to work with Mother Nature.

DELANEY: Mother Nature and the Horrigans of Fairfield, Vermont, have been partners in maple sugaring for 142 years. Robert Horrigan is the patriarch of a sugaring clan that operates the old-fashioned way. Boil the sap down to syrup over a wood-fueled fire, no oil. Gather the sap in buckets and pour it into horse-drawn vats, no tractors.

(A horse is saddled. A man yells, "Ho!")

HORRIGAN: The horses seem to work out good. They don't disturb the soil and cause erosion or anything like that, and so I guess there's a place for them.

(A man calls to horses)

DELANEY: There's a big place for horses in Danny Horrigan's heart. He's been sugaring behind Queenie and Blondie for 10 years. He says nature provides the sap, but the quantity and the quality depend on the spring weather, on cycles of warm days and cool nights.

D. HORRIGAN: This past week has been an excellent week. We've got a good snow cover. And that helps your -- the color and it helps keep the sap cool. It all works together, it's got to stay cool. Right now it looks good. We're hoping it'll last a few weeks. (Calls) Ho!

(Sounds of sloshing liquid)

DELANEY: In the Horrigan clan, young men are in the woods from mid-morning until can't-see-time at night. Over Robert Horrigan's lifetime, that has taken a toll.

R. HORRIGAN: Well, the hills get steeper, the hills get steeper, yeah.

DELANEY: So the old men are in the sugar house turning maple sap into Vermont gold.

(Sounds of steam)

DELANEY: As Robert Horrigan explains, it takes 35 gallons of sap and a lot of hard work to make one gallon of syrup.

R. HORRIGAN: Which president was it? I think it was Jefferson suggested that every state that had the temperature, the climate, should produce maple syrup, because it was something that wasn't produced with slave labor. (Laughs) But I question that a little bit. (Laughs harder; fade to steam and clanking) You certainly heard this said that old sugar makers never die, they just evaporate. So that's what it amounts to; you evaporate the water, and have the goodies left.

DELANEY: Sounds very simple.

R. HORRIGAN: Yeah.

DELANEY: But there's an art to it, I trust.

R. HORRIGAN: Oh, there's a big art to it. My gosh, there's a -- because it's really, some people can stand right there and look at the pan and see it burning and not know what's going on. But let's see, the art is to be able to anticipate that so that you don't get to that crisis.

DELANEY: Sugar making keeps dairy farmers busy in the season between seasons, but the Horrigans are more involved than most. It takes a thousand gallons of sap to produce a 33-gallon barrel of syrup, and the Horrigans produce about 6 barrels a day, each worth about $800. But when you ask about money the chuckling Irishman in Robert Horrigan struggles with the cautious Yankee.

R. HORRIGAN: If you've had a good year, maybe you can buy a new piece of equipment or something, and if you have a poor year, well, you break even.

DELANEY: Are you having a good year, or are you having a bad year?

R. HORRIGAN: Well, it's too early to tell. Actually, I'm optimistic. To quote Yogi Berra, it's not over till it's over.

DELANEY: He has talked of easing up a bit, of slowing down, a little. But quitting is out of the question. Maple sap runs in Horrigan veins. And there's a new generation to teach about tapping, and horses, and boiling, and all the family skills. After all, there's a tradition to keep up. A legacy of sugaring that's been the symbol of spring in maple country, ever since the legendary discovery of sweet sap.

R. HORRIGAN: Indians were -- supposedly threw his tomahawk against a tree and it started bleeding, and the squaw caught the sap to cook his meat in and he was a happy chief. (Laughs)

(Sounds of splashing)

DELANEY: And so is Robert Horrigan, surrounded by his horses, his sons, and the fragrant mist of his sugar house.

(Splashing; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our story on maple sugar came to us from producer Steve Delaney, who lives and works in Milton, Vermont.

 

 

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