On the Move: Maple sugaring season: the sweetest time of the year
It was a cold, foggy and rainy day when I drove to Warner to meet the Courser brothers and to learn about the production of maple syrup. The Courser farm is one of 11 locations in the Kearsarge valley where farmers opened their syrup production to public view during the recent Kearsarge Maple Weekend. Visitors were invited to tour the facilities, see how syrup is produced and buy some of the product. I missed the weekend, but, hopefully will make it next year. The Coursers entertained over 200 visitors on that weekend.
Gerry Courser and his wife live in the farm house on Schoodac Road between Warner and Webster that Gerry’s father built in 1904. The Coursers brought up three sons and a daughter in the home where Gerry has spent most of his life and where he learned to make syrup.
“My dad,” he said, “collected the sap in buckets and boiled it in an old wash pan.”
Today, Gerry and his brother, Timothy, make a year’s supply of syrup in a four- to six-week season in the sugar house down the road from the farm. The length of the season is governed by Mother Nature. The sap that becomes syrup can only run when there have been continual cold nights followed by warm days. The weather this winter was not kind to syrup makers. The Coursers usually have about 200 gallons of syrup; this year, they figure to have about 100. The day I visited was the last day they would boil sap for this year.
I sat in the cozy sugar house watching clouds of steam billowing from the evaporator up a chimney, observing Gerry check thermometers and feed the fire one log after the next from a huge pile of dried logs. In between these activities, he handed me tiny cups of finished syrup to taste. I was quickly on a sugar high. The sap has to reach 222 degrees to become syrup. Forty-two gallons of sap will produce 1 gallon of syrup.
While I visited with Gerry, Timothy was up in the woods, collecting the day’s supply of sap into a huge tank on a truck. The sap he collected would then be piped into a tub in the sugar house and on into the evaporator to become syrup.
The Coursers have 1,000 taps and 15 buckets. In the off season, they cut wood into logs for the sugar house fire and stack it to dry.
“It has to be totally dry to make the right kind of fire,” Gerry said.
I learned that the world’s maple syrup is only produced within a 500-mile circle around the Great Lakes, including New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Quebec, plus some of Canada’s maritime provinces.
I learned that not all syrup producers use wood for their syrup fires today.
“They’ve got all kinds of bells and whistles to produce syrup today,” Gerry said. Some farmers have oil burners instead of wood, some depend on gravity, like the Coursers, some have vacuum systems.
The Coursers’ sugar house sits by the road on the side of a hill in front of the cellar hole of a former barn that belonged to the family farm. Three generations of family pictures decorate the walls of the sugar house.
Growing up, Gerry was active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. He graduated from a high school program called Vocational Agriculture. His school was one of only a few in the state to offer that course of study.
Gerry asked me if I knew the four things it takes to make pure New Hampshire maple syrup: “Tap, gather, boil, enjoy,” he said.
Syrup is available year-round from the Courser farm or at the sugar house. When the sugaring season ends, the Coursers will be haying and growing corn and pumpkins.
Across the road from the sugar house, Gerry showed me a wide field, spreading as far as the eye could see.
“Those are our farm lands,” he said. “We’ve put them in conservation easement to preserve them from future development.”
As I got up to leave, Timothy presented me with a pint of syrup. “You should come to our 4th of July pancake breakfast,” Gerry said.
I put it on my calendar.