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It has been nearly two months since I started working as a farm-based education apprentice at Land’s Sake. Two days after moving into the Melone House I got a call from Doug telling me I was parked in front of our neighbor’s garage.” I ran up the driveway to move the car. The kindly neighbor was none other than Anna Melone. “I was born in the room you are living in,” she told me. I read in my history book that her father made a living as a subsistence farmer on the land around the house.
Now the amazing Land’s Sake crew is a part of that tradition he set in motion. It has been exciting imagining the levels of community and civic participation we can achieve and work towards those goals slowly but surely. Most of this winter I have spent planning the education garden and developing thought provoking curriculum for our farm-based summer camps. While planning is mentally stimulating, carrying heavy Maple sap through the forest and over giant snow banks kept me fit.
I started by leading Winter Farm Tours under a heavy blanket of snow. Weston kindergarteners and first-graders put on their snow pants to experience Winter on the farm, and using all five senses to detect life under the snow. Digging deep to uncover perennial herbs, the students discovered that the snow provides a time of rest and nourishment for some and a moment of quiet for others. Students discovered by noting tracks in the snow that some remain busy and hopping about during the winter months.
A few weeks ago I attended the Massachusetts Agriculture In the Classroom Winter Session, a day of workshops affirming that agriculture can support and nourish a community of diverse individuals. The workshops throughout the day provided linking opportunities between the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and interdisciplinary farm-based learning programs. The Curriculum Frameworks provide broad teaching standards. The challenge at the grassroots level is to connect ecological literacy, healthy living, and local history to today’s standards so that they are relevant values. Through our winter education programs, we have provided our community with tools so that at any age they can be responsible for upholding these values and understand the relevance and importance of upholding them.
The Maple Sugar House Tours I’ve been leading have allowed us to share with students from the Boston and Metro-west areas, the wonder of conditions coming together just right to make a world famous added-value product in their own backyard. Through tapping, tasting, and climbing on our truck, students experienced the sugaring process as another connection to the land. Our young friends began to fill in the story and understand the cycles involved in bringing syrup to their stack of pancakes.
In a moment with vision-impaired students, the sugarhouse became a sensory classroom. As they experienced the pointy buds and rough bark of the sugar maple, the smooth rubber hose, the hard plastic of the sump-pump, the billowing scented clouds of steam rising off of boiling sap, the cold steel of a 10 gallon pot, and of course the taste of hot syrup, the students demonstrated that the sugarhouse is a vivid place with eyes closed.
I have spent many afternoons helping the Maple after school program, a dynamic work project for the students of Weston Middle School. The Maple group trucked around the town twice a week to collect sap from the 400 buckets in the sugar-bushes of Weston. Hard physical work such as carrying loads of up to 10 gallons of sap across snow banks and hilly contours, splitting and stacking wood, helping Steph stoke the fire, and tapping trees were lessons of both mind and matter.
These physical chores were symbolic of working towards goals, earning profits, and beginning to shoulder responsibility while making assessments of efficiency, team building, and conflict resolution. Every drop of sap was literally a ‘drop in the bucket’ toward a successful maple season. We hope the successes and challenges of the season were reaffirming to the Green Power students. Demonstrating that to have a great time and make something valuable you only need your own two hands. Now we are on to the next challenge: the farm season!
After spending all day Friday in the maple sweat lodge that we call the Sugar Shack, I am afraid that maple season is drawing to an end, and as a farmer often does throughout the year, I feel slightly thwarted by nature. As most of New England eagerly awaits the increasing number of nights that are above freezing, I have been dreading them, as the maple trees rush toward budding and the end of the season’s sap production. We started off the maple season with chilly days, and the trees were slow to respond to the coming of spring. Suddenly, we have this past week of balmy nights with no sap flows; somewhere in those few short weeks between, we had a couple of magical days where the sap literally flew out of the trees. If you broke the tip of a branch, the sap was even forced to flow out the broken bud! What a marvel of nature that is the sugar maple.
This is my first maple season as a farmer. I came into this position of authority over the Sugar Shack with two weekends of “vacation” maple sugaring up at a family member’s sugar bush in Vermont. I say “vacation” because any maple sugaring that involves a hot tub is surely a pleasurable weekend more than a true training experience. This February, I received a quick overview on the operations of Land’s Sake’s Sugar Shack and was left to my own devices…my own forgetful devices. Thank goodness we have a staff of amazing people with varying degrees of experience in maple and all very willing to answer my questions at all hours (Thanks, Doug). To kick off the boiling season, I got the fire roaring in the evaporator and cleared Dave to go get himself some morning coffee, while I tended the fire and sap levels. Since I had forgotten to get vegetable oil, Dave was happy to swing by the store on his way back. Unfortunately, I was a little too good at making big fire fast, which made for big boil fast, which resulted in what I deemed the “foam monster” emerging from the rear pan, grasping at me with bubbly arms and hissing in satisfaction. I panicked. Like kryptonite to Superman, fat is the only way to defeat the “foam monster” of maple, and I was fresh out. I tried to gently comb the foam down, expecting a purring submission, but no such luck. I called Dave and politely asked him to “Hurry!”. Upon his arrival, I was able to break the surface tension of the monster, and since then, I have yet to sight it again. It was just testing me on my first day and, realizing my competence and vigilance, has retired for another year.
The rhythm of the sugar shack is one I can appreciate, as a creature that really loves a routine that I can master and then repeat mindlessly. You would think that a twelve hour day in the Sugar Shack with only two draws and two bottlings would be a day of empty spaces, with time to ponder the upcoming farm season and time to get “stuff” done. Lists, guides, planning, blogs, reading…I had big plans to get all these things accomplished while a captive audience to the evaporator. However, maple season has its own rules about consistency and constancy and quickly turns into a full-time job. Check the fire, push it back, add wood to one side, check the levels in the pans, adjust the float valves, check the levels in the sap tanks, estimate the length of boil until the next draw, check the temperature gauges, skim the foam, rinse out supplies, check the fire, push it back, add wood to the other side, check the levels, draw off, rinse the filters, check the temperature, and so on. Suddenly, the rhythm shifts at 219 degrees and a flurry of new activity kicks in involving bottles and caps, sticky gloves, damp clothes, occasional cracked glass, spills, and attempts to get the last dregs out of the finishing pan and into our mouths. Yes, as you may have suspected, the perks to tending the sugaring process happens to be endless syrup gleanings. I have planned my trip to the dentist this spring accordingly.
After completing my first year as Assistant Farm Manager at Land’s Sake, I feel that maple sugaring is definitely the task we undertake that is truly a team effort, a task that unites Farm, Forestry, and Education and links us to the greater Weston community. At Land’s Sake, we all have a to-do list that extends beyond the hours of the day, but when the sap is flowing, we are all on Team Maple. I feel that maple season is the team-building “retreat” every organization needs. We practice maple-themed communication and coordination, sacrifice and support, and frustration and camaraderie. Every day of maple brings new wonders, melting snowdrifts, steamy vistas, the sweetest scent in the world (in my humble opinion), ever-shifting, glowing embers, and my stunningly handsome dog sunning himself, to name a few. I have thoroughly enjoyed the season of maple sugaring, and I feel that I only need another ten seasons before I reach the level of expertise that a nearby farmer has attained, where she is rumored to be able to hear when the maple is at proper syrup density. How amazing is that? For now, it appears that nature may be shutting off the taps, and I turn toward the thawing fields to see what else nature has to bring this year.
Hope to see you all at the Sugaring Off Festival next Saturday, March 26th, from 9 til 1 at the Bill McElwain Sugar Shack at the Weston Middle School! Come for pancakes, sugar-on-snow, bluegrass, maple tours, and of course, our “Weston-famous” maple syrup.
Assistant Farm Manager and Maple Production Manager
Merely a month ago, the world looked a lot different than it does today. Our sugar house was fully engulfed in drifts, our logging crew was trudging through waist deep snow, and spring seemed very very far away. For those of us who love a good old-fashioned New England winter, this year certainly didn’t disappoint.
But as I write this entry, its 49 degrees and drizzling, the last piles of snow are quickly fading away, and spring seems just around the corner (9 days to be exact). With the warmer weather, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of maple buckets on trees around Weston, followed by groups of local middle schoolers rushing to collect as much as they can (without spilling it all over themselves).
During maple season, keeping up with the flow of sap can certainly be a challenge and we rely heavily on the help of Green Power students and community volunteers. A big thank you is due to everyone who has helped with tapping trees and collecting sap over the last month. If you haven’t been able to join us let, not to worry, there are several more weeks of sap collecting. If you are interesting in helping out, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add you to our volunteer email list.
And don’t forget – Saturday, March 26th is our annual Sugaring Off Festival, featuring a live band, tours of the sugar house, maple syrup sales, sugar on snow treats, and of course LOTS OF PANCAKES! The event runs from 9am to 1pm at the Bill McElwain Sugar House, which is located behind the parking lot at the Weston Middle School (456 Wellesley St. Weston, MA)
- Dave Quinn, Land’s Sake.
We dug this video out of the archives and I immediately wanted to share this with others. This great clip is now over 20 years old and stands as a tribute to the importance of our educational mission that we continue to uphold.