GOFFSTOWN, NH – To most there is only one kind of March Madness, the one with college athletes leaping through the air, dunking phat baskets, winning glory for themselves and their teams. But to New Englanders, March provides opportunity for a kind of glory that eclipses any type of fame that a small orange ball could produce. The madness that I speak of is March Maple Madness and it reaches its zenith during maple weekend.
Maple Weekend is an annual celebration put on by the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association between March 18 and 19 to spur interest in and support New Hampshire maple producers. People truly make a weekend out of it, trying to visit as many sugarbushes as they can; quite the challenge with 157 different sugar bushes in the state.
Last Saturday morning I left Manchester for the woods of our neighboring Goffstown for the first stop of my local maple weekend tour, Clark Ridge Farm. I turned into a driveway, muddy from the advent of spring weather that led to a classical farmhouse settled between two hills. The farm’s makeshift parking lot was already packed with cars from everywhere from Maine to New York. Kids holding Dixie shot glasses of syrup splashed through the mud while a few black chickens cowered under a nearby SUV. I made my way to where the action was, the sugar shack.
Inside the shack maple was in the air, literally. A few families gathered around a large metal vat full of boiling sap. A farm hand was knelt down by a tap located near the bottom of the vat where he dispensed a sample into a Dixie shot glass of my own. If you’ve never had fresh, piping hot maple syrup before you have to try it; nothing will warm you up as well, not coffee, not hot chocolate, not even whiskey.
I moved outside which is where I met owner and proprietor of Clark Ridge Farm Dan King, a warm, stoney man who clearly had farming in his eyes and in the huge hardy hands given to him by generations of farmers that came before him.
King is the most recent progeny to take over as steward of his family farm. His grandparents ran the show when he was a kid and when their time had passed in the ‘80s his Uncle Jim, one of five kids, took over. King had just moved back to the area when his uncle tragically passed from a heart attack at age 56. The family then came together and decided it was King’s time to take over.
“It was a nice moment to have that coalesce to help have us look to the future,” he said.
It’s a moment that King knows will have to come again some day in the future with one of his three young boys, who eagerly and adorably dogged their father for fresh waffles and syrup during our interview. “Now we’re thinking again about the next stewards in the line of people who are caring for the land here.”
King learned as quick as he could, drawing from the wealth of knowledge his family gathered over the years. “Also a lot of YouTube University and I’ve slowly built a network of people I know I can call on,” he said.
Since sugaring season is only a few months out of the year King fills the rest of the seasons with cattle farming and forest management.
As many New Hampshire natives have realized, this has been a strange, all-over-the-place kind of winter, which makes things a tad wonky for maple producers since the temperature range in which maple sap flows is rather specific. Usually, King waits until Valentine’s Day to tap his trees, but this year it was close to the first of February.
“I was like yeah, I gotta get my taps in or I’m gonna miss it. So I was able to catch the early runs, but some people started even earlier than me. I think a lot of people got their stuff in early,” King said.
Last week’s storm also put some maple producers in a bind. A lot of lines came down due to the weight of snow and breaking branches falling onto tap tubes.
I asked if that was an easy fix.
“It depends how far you have to go out into the woods. The closer the better! But, some sugar bushes you’re going a mile into the deep snow. Some of mine are close so I can work on it. I still have clean up to do,” King said.
Despite all the weird weather and rough storms King said they had a record production year at over 6,000 gallons of sap. “Now anything over that is just record breaking.”
King always looks to the future; he’s in it for the long haul.
“There’s some concern with Maple regeneration and rising temperature, but this year was textbook. We’re gonna do it as long as we can,” he said.
The second stop on my local sugarbush tour was at Nature’s Sweet Secret, a large sugar shack right off of Goffstown Back Road run by Eddy Caron. Caron had his hands quite full when I arrived. His shack was packed full of guests eager to cut through the maple-scented haze that hung in the air to get their hands on samples of maple taffy, syrup and the plethora of goods his sugarbush offers.
Like Dan King, Caron fell into this business by way of family.
“It was a family type thing growing up and when I moved to Goffstown in 2008 I started the process in my home,” Caron said.
The venture was quite serendipitous because Caron didn’t even buy his home with sugaring in mind. “I just kind of stumbled upon it after I bought the home. I liked the acreage and then I stumbled upon there were a lot of sugar maples here so we started to tap it,” he said.
After a lot of work in the woods and setting the shack up Caron was officially in business. Caron has quite the advantage being off one of Goffstown’s major roads.
“I’ve been fortunate because I get a lot of surrounding people and there aren’t many sugarbushes local by me. It’s worked out well over the years,” he said.
Sugaring is a seasonal hobby for Caron and his family. Since the season is only a month or so long, he said they work normal jobs the rest of the year.
The snowstorm was a blessing for Caron, as it helped cool off the trees and actually extended the season for his sugarbush.
“Our production is down a little but not much. I think if this week and the next one is good we’ll be spot on,” he said.
Maple Weekend might be wrapping up, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of opportunities to support your local sugarbush. With New Hampshire producing around 3% of the nation’s maple syrup, it’s a huge part of our agriculture and economy. Eddy Caron’s Nature’s Sweet Secret is open most weekends and Clark Ridge Farm is operating all year round.
As Dan King puts it, the best way to help out is to “Go out and support your local sugar shack and eat real maple syrup!”