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Greene: Sugaring With Sonny

Sonny Brown has been sugaring for 75 years. He recalls going into the woods with his family when he was five, using a team of horses to gather sap. His father used wooden buckets back then, which in Sonny’s opinion, yields superior syrup.

Sap gathering has changed over the years.

Wooden buckets gave way to metal. Then came tubing in the 1980s, strung between tapped trees in a sugar lot, then run to a gathering tank. Now some large sugaring operations use sap pumps - like milking machines - to collect sap even more efficiently.

Brown is also familiar with the new research in which trees were planted close together, their crowns cut off and the sap collected as it traveled up the immature trees. Even though a lot of sap was collected, and immature trees can be planted very closely together in what might be called factory sugar lots, Brown is skeptical of the practice, dismissing it as unsustainable.

Dr. Tim Perkins, of UVM’s Proctor Research Center, reassures me that young trees regenerate repeatedly, and if they are trimmed to produce many more branches, they can live a long time.

Still, Brown likes to keep his operation more traditional. He prefers buckets to tubing, because he says bacteria can collect in the tubing and distort the taste of the syrup. He says he uses about half and half.

His sugarhouse is wood burning and consumes 12-15 cords a season to produce 250 gallons of syrup. He shrugs off the idea of going solar - “Maybe my kids will want to change the operation when I’m gone, but what I have right now suits me fine.” As to what the Browns do with all that syrup, well, there are the sugarhouse traditions of making instant coffee with hot sap, or taking a saucepan full of sap and hard boiling eggs in it.

The family uses syrup for anything from ham to making popcorn balls. And of course, they sell it. Half the business is mail order, and Brown’s wife, Elizabeth, notes that now the postage costs more than the syrup. They don’t advertise, but they sell out every year.

The concept of terroir - that the terrain, soil and plant conditions in your immediate area affect the taste of your products - whether cheese, wine or syrup - is nothing new to the Browns.

They had some friends over awhile back - each bringing samples of the syrup they made. They all tasted good, Brown assured me, but they also tasted different, one from another - even those of close neighbors. The lesson is to savor your small spot in the world, and to treasure it.

That’s what Sonny Brown does, especially during sugaring season. He enjoys gathering the sap from trees he’s nurtured for decades. He enjoys the camaraderie of friends and newcomers gathering in his roadside sugarhouse to visit and watch as the sap boils.

It’s a celebration of spring - this year a bit overdue - and of his community, who are happy once again, to stop by.