Sap Gathering Contest

It’s “almost-spring” here in New Hampshire, which means it’s time to tap the trees for maple sugar.

Yesterday I went to the annual Sap Gathering Contest at Stonewall Farm, a not-for-profit working farm and educational center here in Keene. Nowadays, many maple syrup producers use plastic tubes to move sap from tree to sugar house: an arboreal IV. But in the old days, teams of horses pulled sleds into the sugar bush where drivers and their helpers emptied sap buckets by hand, a tradition that Stonewall Farm preserves through their annual contest.

As much about draft horses as it is about sap, the Contest attracted 18 two-horse teams from five states. Here Peg Dockham from New Hampshire guides her 20-year-old Haflingers, Streeka and Stokwel, through a draft horse obstacle course no less complicated than any Driver’s Ed exam.

Sap Gathering Contest

Haflingers are small by draft horse standards, but they easily pulled their all-weather sled through our springtime mix of snow, mud, and ice, their most impressive move being a straight-line backup. Knowing how difficult it is to manuever a car in reverse, I marveled at how Streeka and Stokwel were able to backup in unison: impressive.

Draft horses, like sled-dogs, are trained to respond to voice commands. As impressive as it was to see Peg Dockham steering her Haflingers through various twists and turns–the equine version of parallel parking–the true test of a draft team’s training comes in the sugar bush, when drivers guide their teams from the ground while retrieving and emptying sap-laden buckets.

To get a feel for traditional-style sap collection, I followed one team on their round through the contest course during which they were judged on quickness as well as accuracy, the sugar bush being stocked with 40 color-coded sap buckets that drivers and their helpers had to empty into their sap-sleds.

At the start of any contest, participants appreciate a friendly pep-talk. Here Robert Nunes from Maine readies his sled while a helper spends a quiet moment with draft horses Becky and Slim.

Sap Gathering Contest

On the contest course, each two-person team has to locate their color-coded buckets, park their horses, and gather sap into their sleds. Here’s where a draft team’s training comes in handy. Whereas you’d have to climb back on or into a tractor or truck to drive it to the next stop, draft teamsters can call out commands while still on the ground: forward, left, right, or reverse. It’s remote-control driving at its best: if you call your commands properly, your sled will come to you.

Sap Gathering Contest

And now the heavy lifting. After emptying two sap-pails into a plastic bucket, human team-members empty the contents into the sleds. Although speed is one factor in the contest, teams are penalized if they aren’t meticulous in their collection. Tin pails have to be returned to their trees with covers properly replaced, and judges rate how well each team cooperates as they move through the sugar bush. In a word, teams need to Hurry Up while Being Careful.

Sap Gathering Contest

Once a team has collected their sap, it’s back to the sugarhouse…and the finish line.

Sap Gathering Contest

Producing maple syrup is labor intensive. In the spring, sugar maples raise the dissolved sugars they kept in their roots over winter: this year’s sap is the leftover food from last year’s photosynthesis. Raw maple sap looks like water and contains about 2% dissolved sugar. It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, a fact made visible by the number of empty milk jugs tied to the outside of Stonewall Farm’s sugarhouse.

Sap Gathering Contest

It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup…in other words, if you’re in maple syrup business, most of your labor literally goes up in steam.

Sap Gathering Contest

Sap-boiling takes a lot of heat, so wood-burning evaporators require constant stoking: a hellish job to produce something that tastes like heaven.

Sap Gathering Contest

When you realize how much work it takes to produce even a drop of sweetness, you understand why pure maple syrup costs what it does: at Stonewall Farm, a gallon of the Good Stuff goes for $38.50. Yesterday for a mere dollar, you could buy a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with as much fresh maple syrup as you could pour: liquid gold the color and consistency of honey. It was a fitting end to a sweet almost-spring day.

Sap Gathering Contest