Born To Boil: Sugaring Ferdinand's Woods Is Labor Of Love For The Osborne Brothers

Apr 3, 2019

Some maple sugarmakers say sap runs through their veins. It may be just an expression, but sugaring does seem to be in the blood of the Osborne brothers. They're still working the family's Ferdinand woods that took the lives of two Osborne patriarchs.

While the snowbanks are receding in many parts of the state, they’re still measuring the snowpack in feet in much of the Northeast Kingdom. In Ferdinand, sugar maker Jon Osborne has to strap on snowshoes to go check on his sap lines.

Although the lines were strung about four feet off the ground, there are places where the plastic tubing is buried in the snow. Jon’s got to clear the snow from around the lines, so the sap doesn’t freeze on its way to the sugarhouse. He admits this wouldn’t be an issue if they were tapping trees with buckets. But Osborne Family Maple isn’t just a backyard operation. They tap 4,000 trees on 45 acres.

Jon Osborne clears snow away from his sugaring pipeline in Ferdinand, to keep the sap from freezing in the line on its way to the sugarhouse.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Jon Osborne said snow isn’t the only obstacle nature throws at them.

"We spend a lot of time maintaining the pipeline," he said. "Every time we get a big wind event, trees come down. Moose could go though, wipe out lines. Bears, coyotes, squirrels – everybody’s chewing on the lines all the time. So it’s a never-ending battle to keep the pipeline system intact and a good vacuum going."

He's not complaining. For Jon and his brother Troy, this is a labor of love. They're taking time off work to be here in these woods for days, or maybe even weeks. They grew up in Island Pond, where Troy still lives. But Jon is raising his family in Elmore – an hour-and-a-half of frost heaves and muddy potholes away.

"I could be here for weeks on end, depending on how the weather goes," he explained. "So far it's only been a couple of days here and there. But I came prepared this time with plenty of clean socks and underwear. So, I could be here for the duration at this point."

This is their eleventh season sugaring, but Troy says his family’s relationship to this land goes back generations:

"Our great-grandfather, Harry Osborne, apparently won it in a poker game back in the mid-40s, late-40s, and it was just used for hunting and whatnot."

Harry’s sons eventually built a hunting camp on the property. That stood until this generation of Osborne brothers built a new camp in the 90s. "'Cause the squirrels had taken over the other one," Troy explained. Jon added, "And the porcupines."

The Osbornes sell much of their syrup in glass jugs, printed with a photo of their parents in front of their Ferdinand sugarhouse. The only color on the label is the red of their father Gary's Johnson Woolen Mills hunting coat.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

It was about a decade later when their father, Gary, came up with a new plan for the woods – sugaring. Jon says, at first, his dad was thinking of it as a retirement hobby.

For over 35 years Gary Osborne worked as a federal officer on the border, and he was ready to dust off his UVM forestry degree and get to work in the woods.

"I said, 'What do you have in mind, Dad?'" Jon recalled. "And he said, 'You know, we could have a couple, 300 taps here no problem. It’d be a fun hobby.' And I said, 'Dad, I have enough hobbies that I don’t have enough time to do right now.' I said that if we’re gonna do it, let’s, you know, scale it up and see what we can do."

Troy, who’s a builder and an architect, took the lead on building the sugarhouse, where all 45 acres of sap lines now flow. Inside is where the sap is boiled down into golden organic syrup – which the Osbornes sell in distinctive glass bottles printed with an image of Gary, and their mother, Janet, standing in front of the sugarhouse.

"It’s just a tribute to my dad and the vision he had here, and the hard work that he put in here," said Jon. "And, it’s just heartbreaking that he only got to enjoy the fruits of that labor for two years."

Two years, because at the tail end of their second season, in April 2010, tragedy struck.

Jon Osborne snowshoes out into the woods that have been in his family for generations.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"We were going to pull taps that day and my brother and he were cutting some big yellow birch logs," Jon explained. "And, unfortunately he was in the wrong spot and had one land on him and didn’t survive."

Gary Osborne was rushed to North Country Hospital, nearly an hour away, but died of his injuries. Jon says Gary died on the same property where his own father died from an accident while cutting firewood. And that's part of what keeps him coming back.

"So, we have a history up here," he said. "It's a special place to me. That makes it even that much more special. You know, given a choice, I would just as soon die up here in these woods as in a hospital or a nursing home. And who knows what will happen, but hopefully I have many more years."

This year, if the weather forecast holds true, the Osborne brothers are in for some long, lonely hours on their family's land in Ferdinand in April. But Jon says his mother will likely stop by to make sure they're doing it right.