Around these parts, we’re gearing up for our favorite seasonal activity: sugaring. Our seasonal milking schedule allows us to dry our cows off this time of year, giving them a rest before they calve again on green grass. And best of all, it allows us to fully participate in our family’s sugaring operation, which takes place just a few miles away, on the farm where my mother-in-law was raised.
My husband’s relatives built the sugarhouse in the early 1800′s, when Vermont was a patchwork of green pastures and stone fences for sheep and cows. The same sugarhouse still stands, now sitting high above a busy village, where 6,000 commuters pass by every day. Though the landscape has changed, the process has not: we hang buckets on 1,000 trees every spring and spend the muddy month of March as a family, slipping and sloshing through the woods gathering the sap and hauling it back to the sugarhouse with a team of magnificent draft horses.
Most modern sugaring operations utilize tractors or ATVs to get around in the woods, pipelines to collect sap, and reverse osmosis machines to turn sap to syrup. What’s the point, you may ask, of doing things the old-fashioned way?
I recently came across an essay my husband wrote in high school about sugaring, which sums up why we choose tradition over modern convention:
“In the spring breeze that blows against my face, I sense the presence of others who have gone before me. In the sugarhouse I talk with my grandfather who died when I was six months old, his voice a soft whisper upon the rising steam. The creak of an old door hinge is a welcoming hello from relatives I have never seen before, but who I know well. When I hear the clatter of horses’ feet and smell the sweetness of boiling sap, I am filled with peace, and strength…”
Sugaring keeps the farm in the family because it keeps us a family. We sweat together, we swear together, we laugh together, we sit silently in the woods together, waiting for the horses to return for another load, and simply exist among the spirits of those who have done the same over the centuries.
Maybe it’s the same old-fashioned sensibilities that have landed us a career in organic dairy farming. Though some may think of organic farming as a recent phenomenon, it’s as old as the hills. Modern farming, with its laboratory-fabricated petrochemicals and high-tech machinery, is a recent phenomenon. In much the same way that we run around the woods in the spring to gather sap on foot, we spend the growing season running around the pasture, sometimes moving the cows hourly so they constantly have the freshest grass in front of them. Is it more efficient than harvesting the forage with a tractor and dumping it in front of confined cows on concrete?
I suppose time will tell. But I strongly suspect that the time-tested methods of animal husbandry (like grazing) that sustained our ancestors over the centuries, are what will sustain our children too. And when I walk out into a lush, green pasture on a sunny day amongst our herd, and hear the sounds of grass being made into delicious, nutritious milk, I can’t help but think the cows agree with me.