Looking back at 2020 and ahead to 2021
We were in the height of sugar season when it became apparent that 2020 was not going to be a normal year. I recall being in the sap house, checking our reverse osmosis system and saying to my brother in law that if this was the real deal, it was going to be well over a year before things even had a shot at normalizing.
“Sugar season,” when our maple syrup is produced, starts really ramping up around the first of the year. Spring comes earlier for sugar makers than it does for the rest of the world. As we move past the winter solstice and the days begin to lengthen, men, women, children and grandparents all over Vermont and throughout the Maple Belt take to the woods, making final preparations for what is arguably the most intense period of production in the annual cycle of the northeastern farm. An entire years worth of planning, work, hope, sacrifice, and struggle comes into focus, clear as the sap that fills the tanks.
(Making early season Golden Delicate (Fancy) maple syrup March,2020)
In 2020, the intensity of the season came as a relief to many sugar makers. As the world went into full panic mode, clearing store shelves and locking down, sugar makers had already isolated themselves, as they did every year, far up their hillsides in knee deep snow checking their sap lines, or boiling away into the early morning in their sugarhouses. For the sugarmaker, when the sap runs, you have to be there to do the work. You can’t miss a drop, because you can’t get it back. The trees simply don’t care if you are tired, or hungry, or in the case of 2020 - what is happening in the world.
So, we put our heads down and did the work. Tim spent all his available hours working the sugarbush and sugarhouse, and Emily forged ahead with her nursing work, gracefully helping to deliver new life into this uncertain world, under uncertain conditions. We finished sugar season 2020 with 780 gallons of syrup - a production record for our little sugarhouse.
(Maple steam rising from the cupola on a beautiful clear morning, March, 2020)
As our bees began emerging from their winter clusters in late March, we were happy to find that nearly all of our colonies pulled through the Vermont winter. The dandelion bloom in early May is the first real feast of pollen and nectar for our bees, and is when we are finally able to breathe a sigh of relief that they have survived the long period of winter dormancy.
(One of our honeybees loaded down with dandelion pollen, May, 2020)
By about mid-May it was clear that we were going to have to dramatically shift our plan for the year if our farm was going to make ends meet. In a normal year, sales of our syrup and honey at multi day craft shows to crowds of 10,000+ would be the backbone of the farm’s annual income. In 2020, all of our planned shows were cancelled. Certainly one thing we picked up along our Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2012, was that the even the best laid plans: 1) Change 2)Always. How’s that saying go? “When the going gets tough, the tough ... get chickens?” And so it went, in order to close the craft show gap, we turned our summer efforts towards a flock of 100 egg laying hens, and over 500 broiler chickens. We raised and processed the broiler chickens on farm in groups of 50-100, selling directly at the local farmers market and off of the farm. At the height of the summer we were collecting about 90 eggs each day from our hens.
(Our pasture raised broilers moving into fresh grass, July, 2020)
Our birds live in our pastures, where they have full access to fresh grass, sunshine, and bugs and all of those little chickeny things in life that make a chicken happy. Now, as I write, our flock of laying hens is cozy inside our newly erected high tunnel (greenhouse) patiently waiting for spring to come around. Full disclosure: we haven't told our existing flock yet that there are 400 more laying hens coming to join them in the spring!
Our apiary had an average year in 2020. It was a dry year with drought conditions that persisted through the summer. As a result of the drought, surplus honey production was down significantly. On the upside, our bees were healthy and strong going into the winter months. Despite the lower than hoped for honey harvest, the hives still packed in plenty of honey for their winter stores. We like to see hives going into winter with at least 80 pounds of honey, and nearly all of the hives comfortably exceeded that mark. The apiary currently consists of 30 hives, and depending on winter loss, the hope is to build out to 50 hives in 2021.
(Our apiary, patiently waiting for spring)
For 2021: 1) A few more taps, making approximately 1,700 total, and hopefully some more syrup to be made. 2) More hives, hoping this is the year we hit 50, and continuing the growth of our apiary. 3) Full speed ahead on the laying hens - by May 1st we will have a flock of 500 roaming our pastures. 4) Oh, there's more! You’ll have to check back and see, though. We aren’t ready to spill the beans quite yet…
Here's to a good year ahead!