The Past and Future of Sugaring in Lebanon

sugaring in lebanon - maple syrup lined up on a window

You can find maple syrup in every city, town, and rest stop in New England, and in every grocery store and gift shop from Connecticut to Maine. Whether you buy it in the familiar, screw-capped, gray plastic jugs or in fancy glass bottles shaped like little leaves, maple syrup carries with it a long tradition of community, family, and hard work. Nowhere is that more true than in Lebanon, where some of the oldest families in town are not only continuing the long legacy of maple sugaring, but carrying it forward into a more efficient – and more sustainable – future.

Perched on the top of Storrs Hill sits a white farmhouse, decorated with signs reading “century farm” and “bicentennial farm” on the side. It was built in 1784 by Nathaniel Storrs, one of the first settlers to come to the area. The land had come into his brother’s possession in 1763, just two years after Governor Benning Wentworth signed the charter that brought Lebanon into existence. In February of 1769, “Grandfather Nathaniel” (as his descendant Heidi Townsend Bundy calls him) bought the plot from his brother Cornelius, and two years later he moved his whole family up from Mansfield, Connecticut. The log cabin they first lived in no longer survives, but the farm, which has gone by several names over the years, including Storrs-Townsend and the current Tomapo (an abbreviation of Townsend Maple Orchard) is still in the family – and still producing maple syrup.

“We believe that they were probably sugaring shortly after Grandfather Nathaniel settled here,” Heidi says, sitting at the kitchen table in the old farmhouse. Nathaniel was her fifth-great-grandfather. “We only have records back to 1824,” she but “of all the things on the farm, that’s the one thing that we can track having been here. I have diaries from Grandfather Abel from the late 1800s. I have diaries from my grandfather, Harry [Storrs Townsend], from the late 1950s…we’ve got a lot of paperwork that makes us believe that sugaring was here early on.” Sarah Murchie, Heidi’s daughter, sits across the table with her own toddler daughter sitting in her lap: “It’s been the one constant,” she adds.

The earliest history of maple syrup itself isn’t perfectly clear, but one thing that everyone can agree on is that it’s always been plenty of work. Indigenous oral histories from across the northeast tell of the origins of sugaring – clearly an indigenous practice long before the arrival of settlers – with several suggesting that syrup itself once flowed directly from the trees until greater powers intervened, diluting it into sap to prevent humanity from becoming too lazy. When the sap comes out of the trees, its sugar content is very low, usually one to two percent by weight. Finished syrup is around sixty-six percent, and the art and science of sugaring is in how you get from one to the other.

Once upon a time, the secret to maple syrup production was simple: more bodies. “When my father was young,” Heidi says, “there would be an announcement at the [high] school in the afternoon, that the Townsends needed help…and the boys would hike up over the hill and spend the afternoon gathering sap.” Today, the sap is collected using vacuum pumps and plastic lines that crisscross the hillsides and collect in great tanks, but back then, the height of technology was metal buckets and rubber boots. “They still stop at the market and identify themselves as one of those kids that gathered sap, [saying] ‘we had so much fun’…I was around when there were buckets, and I don’t remember it being fun,” Heidi laughs, reminiscing. “They were happy. I always had sap in my boots; my mittens were always wet.” The industry has modernized since, not least because students who will work for a dollar an hour (plus a little ‘sugar on snow’ at the end of the day) are understandably harder to come by than they used to be.

“We have come into the 21st century,” Heidi says. “Back ten plus years ago…we added a vacuum system to our mix…so for quite a while we had a vacuum system on the one side of the road, about a thousand taps, and then we had five hundred on the other side that were all gravity fed to a tank” (they’ve since expanded to over 2,000 taps). But that division still meant extra manual labor, and so they tried an experiment with something called a “sap ladder”. “You bring all of your tap lines into a main line that’s headed downhill, and then there’s a vacuum system that has you spread that volume out into small lines so it will climb up into another line that goes downhill,” Heidi explains, describing the way the sap can travel up a line sixteen feet into the air to safely cross a road frequented by farm trucks and utility vehicles. “And then this past year, we added reverse osmosis to the mix.”

sugaring in lebanon - eric and his wife cole pressing the start button on the RO machine
Eric Cole and his wife, Susan Cole, pressing the start button on the RO machine for the first time.

Reverse osmosis – or RO – is a technology that might be more familiar as a water filtration system: using high pressure and a semi-permeable membrane, water is divided into pure drinking water on the one side and a leftover liquid called concentrate on the other. Its use in sugaring just flips around which side is considered valuable. In a drinking water system, it’s the pure water that’s the goal, but in sugaring, it’s the concentrate. “So what it does is, it separates. Seventy-five percent of the water is pulled out of the sap before you even put it in the evaporator,” Heidi says. “I end up with hundreds of gallons of pure water in a tank that I use for cleaning, and then I have the rest of the sap that’s left, which has been condensed from two percent sugar to eight percent.” That means less time and energy spent boiling the sap down into syrup. “Last season, I spent ten 12-14 hour days in the sugar house [boiling sap], and I had help,” she adds. “This last season, 2023, we had the reverse osmosis set up, and I ended up doing 6-8 hour days, at most.” These moves toward labor-saving modernization aren’t limited to Tomapo Farm, either.

Not a mile away as the crow flies is another farm that’s also been around since almost the first days of Lebanon. Standing in his garage-turned-sugar house, Eric Cole explains that Elm Tree Farm has been in his family for eight generations. “We do business here as Ascutney View Farm, which is off of Poverty Lane…our kids will be the ninth generation.” But while sugaring is something the family has done for as long as anyone can remember, this particular venture is something new for Eric, who doesn’t look old enough to be on his third career. “I went to school for forestry, got my forestry license…was in the logging industry for a few years.” After hurting his back, he spent seventeen or eighteen years selling logging equipment:
“skidders and feller-bunchers…everything that you need to cut down a tree in the forest and process it and get it to the mill.” And then, a year ago last November, “I decided to…I say ‘retire’ from my second career,” he says, looking at the setup in the repurposed three-car garage. “And now I’m on career number three.”

The garage doesn’t look like the old traditional sugar house that’s just next door, where Eric grew up sugaring with his brother, father, and grandfather, nor does it look like the modernization of a legacy sugar house like they have at Tomapo. In fact, from the outside, the only clue that it isn’t for cars is the way three large blue sugar lines run up to (and through) the exterior wall. But one look inside tells another story: two raised, black, 3,000 gallon tanks take up a quarter of the interior space. Another half is taken up by an enormous stainless steel machine. “So that’s a three-and-a-half by fourteen CDL evaporator,” Eric says. “It’s oil-fired. Help is fairly limited today – for a lot of people – and so my goal was to be able to do as much of this myself as I possibly could.”

He isn’t overstating things: every part of his sugaring operation can be run from right where he’s standing. The sugar bush, a 20-acre patch with about 2,200 taps so far, is about three quarters of a mile up the hill. “I have a twenty foot conex box, a shipping container, out in the woods with a 2,200 gallon tank inside of it, and a vacuum releaser. So the vacuum goes out to the releaser, from that releaser I’ve got main lines that go all through the woods, which brings the sap down to the storage container…and then I have a pump that’s run off a generator out there, and it pumps the sap back to here.” From his phone, he can tell in real time the temperature and vacuum pressure of any given segment of line, and how full the sugar bush storage tank is. It’s a far cry from buckets and boots. “I don’t touch anything through the whole process. It just comes out of the trees, through here, through here, to the barrel,” he says, pointing. “It’s very efficient for me, as one person. I can do pretty much everything myself.”

Next to the internal storage tanks is an RO setup not unlike the one at Tomapo, but unlike the eight percent sugar concentrate that Heidi runs through her setup, Eric runs his up to twenty, using his two tanks and multiple passes to achieve that level of concentration. The difference is in how long the sap spends being heated in the different evaporators.

The color and flavor of maple syrup come from something called the Maillard reaction. It’s a reaction between amino acids and certain sugars that happens when they’re exposed to heat – think a nicely seared steak or a lightly-browned campfire marshmallow. That browning is what gives maple syrup its flavor, and it’s a function of the type of sugars in the sap and the length of time it spends being heated. Depending on the evaporator, the concentrate might be too sweet, in which case it wouldn’t be able to spend enough time exposed to the heat to develop all the color and flavors that maple syrup is famous for. Heidi recalls an early boil after taking hers to twelve percent: “I tasted that syrup, and I thought… this doesn’t have the kind of flavor I want.” Meanwhile at Elm Tree Farm, Eric says his “rig boils so smoothly at twenty percent that that’s what I shoot for.”

Reducing the number of hands needed isn’t the only upside of modernizing the sugaring process: a more efficient setup also means a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. At Tomapo, Heidi says they used to get six gallons of sap for every third of a cord of wood. Thanks to improvements that include the new RO setup, they now get thirty-six gallons for the same amount of wood, an over 80% reduction in emissions. Meanwhile, running twenty percent concentrate, Eric’s boiling runs are far shorter than they would otherwise be. “Last year my longest boil was two, two-and-a-half hours. I can make about forty gallons of syrup an hour,” and less time boiling means fewer emissions.

But for all the ways that sugaring has changed, some things are still the same. When asked “why sugaring?” Eric says it’s a mix of nostalgia and the need for a challenge. “I have a lot of memories of my father and my grandfather here in the sugar house… [and] I’m just kind of drawn to the woods.” Heidi’s father, Bruce Townsend, still comes down to the sugar house once a season, too. “He tastes the syrup, tells me it ‘tastes pretty good,’ and then as he leaves…he’ll turn around and look at me and say, ‘well, you look like you know what you’re doing.’” She laughs and says, “But that’s Dad…It’s a fun activity, it really is. I mean it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, especially when you can do it with family.” With a little luck, and a little help from new technologies, they’ll be able to do it for generations to come.