Maple Hill Farm has been in the Morse family since 1905, when Steve’s grandfather purchased the farm. “My father took it over from him,” says Steve Morse, “and I took it over from my father, and now Jason’s in charge of it at this point.”
The farm was 60 acres when it was purchased in 1905. When Steve Morse’s father was in his late teens, another 50 adjacent acres became available. “My father bought that property with his father’s signature, because he was too young to buy it,” says Steve Morse. Then in 1952, the year Steve Morse was born, another 100 adjacent acres became available, and his father bought that, too. It was that parcel of land that had the present day sugaring operation on it. The land purchase came with an evaporator and equipment and 2,000 sap-gathering buckets, which are the same buckets the farm uses today.
“Our sugaring operation is almost spot on for what it would have been 75 years ago,” says Jason Morse. The Morses use taps and buckets for collection and a horse-drawn sled to gather sap and bring it to their sugarhouse, which is about a mile from the main farm and can’t be accessed by car. And although many farms have embraced new technologies such as electric or gas heat for the boiling process and tube extraction devices for sap removal, the Morses have not.
“Most sap is collected through tubing now by pretty most everyone else,” says Steve Morse. “We’re one of the very few that are being steadfast with the buckets. And I don’t know how far you’d have to go to find someone who’s gathering sap with horses.”
Steve Morse says that tubing technology, which uses a vacuum to extract sap from maple trees, somewhat mitigates the risks that weather poses.
With bucket collection, cold temperatures at night and warm temperatures in the afternoon are needed, so that the sap rises and then falls. “You’re relying on barometric pressure to change the pressure in the tree so that sap will leak out,” he says. “The guys with tubing for the most part are using vacuum and they’re pulling it out. Some of those guys started in January and sugared in January, February, March, and into April, because they kept pulling it out.”
The Morses tried tubing in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it didn’t work for them. “We found it very difficult to make what we call fancy syrup,” says Jason Morse. “The last term used for it was light amber, and now the most recent term for it is golden with delicate flavor. We still call it fancy. As far as we’re concerned, fancy is the best maple syrup there is. It’s the hardest to make, it’s what made Vermont famous 100 years ago.”
He adds that bacteria in sap is what affects the coloring and robustness of syrup, and that tubing lends itself to more bacteria in the syrup. As a result, darker shades of syrup with stronger flavor have emerged in greater numbers. “But it’s a marketing scheme,” says Steve Morse. “Which they had to invent because they had so much of the dark stuff.”
Jason Morse says that some people who aren’t used to real syrup prefer darker syrups, because artificial syrups are made to be dark, thick, and bold in flavor. “But if you have the fancy syrup, it’s light,” he says. “You can see through the bottle. It soaks into the pancakes, it isn’t overwhelming with maple flavor. It’s subtle and perfect. For us it needs to be fancy or we aren’t going to sell it.”
Today, Maple Hill Farm produces between 150 and 200 gallons of fancy syrup a year. Steve Morse says that tubing operations might make twice that amount with the same amount of taps in a year. “But if they’re making a lot of that darker stuff, they may need to sell it wholesale,” he says. “We’re after the retail market for people who know and want fancy syrup.”
The Morses took their buckets down mid-April. “We actually turned out fairly well,” says Jason. “The old wives tale is that you get a quart per tap, which would be 0.25 gallons per tap, and we made 0.23 per tap this year. So just slightly under. If we could have made another 10 gallons, we would have been right where we wanted to be. But we’re not upset with that.”
“For a goofy year, that’s pretty good,” says Steve Morse.