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This family’s sweet on maple sugaring

Meet the folks at River Maple Farm in Bernardston

  • Geoff Bluh/Recorder<br/>Dairy farmer and maple producer Butch Grover, with daughters Rena, 18  and Regina, 20, of River Maple Farm in Bernardston pose with the evaporator at their sugar house on Saturday. The farm was having an open house which featured their maple products.<br/>

    Geoff Bluh/Recorder
    Dairy farmer and maple producer Butch Grover, with daughters Rena, 18 and Regina, 20, of River Maple Farm in Bernardston pose with the evaporator at their sugar house on Saturday. The farm was having an open house which featured their maple products.

  • Geoff Bluh/Recorder<br/>A row of maple trees with buckets at the River Maple Farm in Bernardston.<br/>

    Geoff Bluh/Recorder
    A row of maple trees with buckets at the River Maple Farm in Bernardston.

  • Geoff Bluh/Recorder<br/>Dairy farmer and maple producer Butch Grover, with daughters Rena, 18  and Regina, 20, of River Maple Farm in Bernardston pose with the evaporator at their sugar house on Saturday. The farm was having an open house which featured their maple products.<br/>
  • Geoff Bluh/Recorder<br/>A row of maple trees with buckets at the River Maple Farm in Bernardston.<br/>

BERNARDSTON — “We’ve only boiled once this year, but it’s the nicest maple syrup we’ve ever made.”

Phillip “Butch” Grover of River Maple Farm is glad to see the sap flowing once again after a couple bad sugaring seasons in a row.

To celebrate, the farm held a “Maple Day,” where visitors could sample syrups and maple sugar candies and see just how it goes from sap to syrup. Those warm samples were, of course, sweet and sticky, and boasted a light amber color.

“The last couple years, we’ve had really warm weather and the syrup’s come out very dark,” he said. “This season’s been more like old times.

For River Maple Farm, those old times started 101 years ago, when, in 1912, Grover’s grandfather moved to town with seven cows and three horses to start a dairy farm. To satisfy his sweet tooth, he tapped a few maple trees around the house.

“The ones down here weren’t big enough to tap yet,” Grover said, standing in the sugarhouse next to the river, down the road from the barns.

His grandfather started without so much as a sugarhouse, boiling his sap in the open air, in a 2-by-3-foot evaporator, tiny compared to the current 5-by-16-foot evaporator.

By 1920, those trees had grown enough to tap, and his grandfather built the original sugarhouse, in the spot where a 1967 replacement stands today.

“At one point, he had taken down a Gorton’s Fish sign, because the rent hadn’t been paid on it, and used it as part of the roof,” said Grover. “You could still read ‘seven miles to Greenfield’ on the sugarhouse roof.”

In those days, he said, sap production was much better, with colder winters and not as much harmful salt used on nearby Route 5.

Grover said he remembers getting as much as a half-gallon of syrup from each four-gallon pail of sap, but today’s yield is around 40 to 1.

As soon as he was able, Grover was given plenty to do around the family farm. At 6, he said, he used to drive the tractor, and once fell off and had his leg run over by a passing car, breaking the bone. His first solo sap-boil came just a couple years later.

“The first year I boiled, my dad was running for assessor, and had to go to town meeting one night,” he recalled. “All day during milking, he said he didn’t want to go, because he had all that sap to boil.

“I was eight years old, and I came down here, lit the fire, and started boiling syrup.”

When his father came home and saw what Grover had done, he didn’t scold him, but merely suggested that it was time to call it a night.

Grover said that on the farm, you were expected to carry your own weight as soon as you were able.

“As long as you can walk, you’ve got to do something on the farm,” said Grover. That held true then, and it holds true now.

“The years each of the girls were born, I had them at the sugarhouse with me, sleeping in a syrup box as I boiled sap,” he said.

“I think we all began working as soon as we could walk,” said his daughter, Regina Grover, 20.

“We like it, though,” said her sister Rena, 18.

Both Grover’s daughters plan to follow in his footsteps.

Rena Grover recently graduated from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, where she studied agriculture, though she briefly considered studying to be an electrician. She said she plans to stick around the family farm.

Her sister, Regina, attends Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, where she’s taking livestock science classes. She lives at home during breaks.

She’ll soon take off for Washington, D.C., where she’s been selected as one of 100 youth from around the nation, to take part in national agricultural day.

“It’s awesome to be a part of the close-knit community of agriculture,” she said. “It will be great, there will be people from all over the country, exchanging ideas. We also get to talk to senators about agriculture.”

She was nominated to the panel by her 4-H extension educator, and approved by the national 4-H organization.

The younger Grovers said farming is hard work, but rewarding.

They’ve got plenty to do on the homestead. Grover and his daughters, with the help of a neighbor, run the whole sugar show, from tap to table. They do it the old-fashioned way, too.

“A lot of people use pipelines these days, and never have to empty a bucket,” said their father. “I think it tastes better when you use the old tin pails.”

Those pails have some history; Grover said some belonged to his grandfather when he started out, and were already second-hand.

Today, they have “only about 1,000” of those buckets hanging, said Grover. They can be seen hanging from trees deep into the woods on the sugarhouse property, and their covers glinted in the Saturday afternoon sun.

In their heyday, the Grovers hung about 3,500 of those four-gallon buckets, collecting each of them every one or two days during sugaring season. Then, they had Grover’s father, brother and nephews, along with a couple hired hands, helping out with the dairy and syrup work.

With the three Grovers and their neighbor working now, it takes them about four hours to swap those 1,000 buckets. Mostly water, a full four-gallon bucket of sap weighs around 32 pounds.

“Your arms get tired toward the end,” said Rena Grover. “But it’s not too bad if you don’t have to walk through deep snow.”

“Some days, when there’s snow in the air, and the syrup’s flowing, you really don’t want to go out and collect it, but you have to,” said Phillip Grover.

Once in a while, he said, when the sap’s flowing at its peak, he’ll come out to find a bucket he’d emptied the previous day already overflowing. Other times, he said, the cold weather does some of the work for him.

“Yesterday, we threw out more ice (from the buckets) than we brought in for sap,” he said. That ice is no problem; when ice forms in the buckets, it leaves behind all the good stuff, with less water to have to boil out of it.

Though syrup season is short, the Grovers have syrup year-round, and include it in almost every meal, she said. Still, they don’t get sick of it.

“We used to bring our own maple syrup to school, so we could have it when they had pancakes for lunch,” said Rena Grover. “I used to always have a bottle in my locker.”

Her father said he only recalls one occasion where he had artificial syrup, while he was on a family vacation. He wasn’t impressed.

You can buy River Maple Farm’s syrup and maple sugar candies at the farmhouse, 250 Brattleboro Road, Bernardston, through mail-order, or at the Bernardston Farmers’ Market, Saturdays from June through October in the Kringle Candle Co. lot on South Street.

David Rainville can be reached at:
rainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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