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Book Review:‘Sugar Season’ author spins a riveting tale

Special to The Recorder

“The Sugar Season” by Douglas Whynott (Da Capo Press, 304 pages, $24.99)

Sugarhouses symbolize spring in New England. The alternating temperatures that make the sap run through maple trees, the smoke coming out of neighbors’ sugarhouses, the lines outside maple restaurants: all these remind us that even as snow lingers on the ground, life is bubbling up beneath it.

Most of the maple farms with which we are familiar here in Franklin County view sugaring as just a part — albeit a very important part — of farm life.

In “The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest,” Douglas Whynott examines a maple enterprise that is huge compared to most of our local sugarhouses, the Bascom Farm in Alstead, N.H.

Although the Bascoms have been harvesting and boiling sap for more than a century and a half, the current Bascom, Bruce, has taken the business to new heights. His father, Ken, was the first farmer in the family to devote himself solely to syrup production.

Under Bruce Bascom’s leadership, the farm has grown into a multi-million-dollar enterprise. In addition to tapping his own trees, Bascom buys and sells syrup wholesale and packages syrup for stores and restaurants. He also sells new and used sugaring equipment, from buckets to evaporators.

Whynott’s book follows the Bascom enterprise through the sugaring season of 2012. Readers may recall that season as a strange one. Sap began running in early February, and temperatures soared in mid-March, cutting off maple production.

In the course of the book, Whynott also describes a number of other maple farms; he even checks in with a couple in our area, including Davenport Farm in Shelburne. Nevertheless, the Bascom enterprise is central to his book.

Bascom comes across as a perplexing hybrid. In many ways his business resembles smaller maple enterprises. It is a gathering place for neighbors and family members, a place where flavor and a traditional way of life are cherished.

In other ways, however, Bascom’s business is more like a financial firm than a farm. He carefully speculates on when to buy and sell syrup, treating it like a commodity on the stock exchange. The author suggests that this combination of farm and firm may show the way to the future of the maple industry.

Whynott spins a riveting tale and communicates his enthusiasm for maple syrup and its production. He convincingly argues that because of its dependence on individual trees and temperatures, the maple business may be closer to nature than most other enterprises.

He also posits that maple farms can lead the way in the battle against global warming. From Bascom to families who boil down only a few gallons of syrup a year, maple producers are troops on the front line of that battle.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” (www.merrylion.com) and “Pulling Taffy” (www.pullingtaffy.com). She is always looking for new books from Franklin County-related authors to review for this paper. If you have a book suggestion, email her at Tinky@merrylion.com.

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