Donald Schroeder welcomed friend Peter Hill to his sugarhouse on Poor Farm Road on Monday morning with a simple question: “Is it time yet to turn pumps on?”
“Sun says yes. I think thermometer says no,” Hill said with a laugh. “Probably time to get going.”
With that, they took off into the woods on a pair of snowmobiles. Stretches of multicolored tubing hung above the snowy, sloping path, and the men pointed out a handful of pressure gauges and popular deer hideaways along the way.
Soon, a small wooden hut appeared, housing metal tanks with hundreds of gallons of frozen sap. A plastic decoy duck, usually floating atop the clear liquid, sat stoically submerged.
Warming rays of light seemed promising, though, and small air bubbles appeared to dart about inside the semi-transparent piping connected to the surrounding maple trees. By that afternoon, Schroeder guessed he’d be ready to send the sap back up the hill and start boiling.
The 52-year-old bought the 140-acre plot in Colchester back in 1997. A master electrician by trade, Schroeder wanted to see if he could build a year-round home with his wife, Valerie, and two daughters that was completely off the grid.
Using batteries, solar and wind power, Schroeder succeeded. Two years later, he added a maple sugaring operation onto the self-sufficient system.
Today, Poor Farm Sugar Works counts about 1,000 tapped maple trees and produces an average 400 gallons of maple syrup annually. Schroeder grew up sugaring, but said he didn’t originally plan to wade into the business as an adult.
“I was just happy to have a piece of land that was kind of remote in the middle of everywhere,” Schroeder said. “Then, I started looking around and seeing maple trees. That was kind of an unexpected bonus.”
The operation he runs today looks quite a bit different than the tactics employed in his childhood. Machines can now take about two-thirds of the water content out of the sap, drastically reducing boil time from sap to syrup.
There’s also a television screen perched in the corner with live feeds from several key spots around the property. Schroeder can monitor them from his cell phone to see when it’s time to take action.
“A lot of sugaring happens between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m.,” Schroeder said. “If I can watch that, I can know whether I need to pump, if things are going to overflow or whether I roll over and sleep for another hour.”
Friends like Hill watch the feed, too, and sometimes alert Schroeder to any big changes. When it’s time to boil, he sends a mass text to his friends and said most will jump at the chance to help.
The uniformly bottled jugs of syrup and complicated rigging make Sugar Works seem like a professional gig, but Schroeder said the company is still considered “hobby sized.”
On Monday, sap slowly dripped into the lone metal bucket hanging on a nearby tree, clinking softly as it hit the icy layer below. Crouching down in the snow bank, Schroeder caught a drop of the clear liquid on his finger as it left the spout.
Though he relies exclusively on the plastic lines now, Schroeder will install a few more traditional buckets as in preparation for visitors to this weekend’s open house.
“The whole tapping ritual is a lot of fun for them. It’s nice to see their faces,” Schroeder said, even if he takes them down a few days later.
The annual open house typically puts a vat of boiling sap on display and offers up servings of sugar on snow, he said. Attendance varies each time, largely dependent on weather.
Many Colchester children visit the operation on school field trips, Schroeder said, and later come back with their families. Even then-Gov. Jim Douglas paid the Schroeders a visit one year.
When conditions are just right, Schroeder said they sell about half the season’s haul during the short open house, plus some maple candy and butter. Other times, he said it’s tough to justify the needed effort.
The visitors bring their own syrup preferences, from light and delicate to dark and rich. Small glass sample jars nestled in the windowpane show a consistent color change as the season has progressed.
When Schroeder was a kid, he said the lightest consistency was considered best. Since then, trends have almost reversed.
An increasingly industrialized and sanitized industry has made it more difficult for sugarers to obtain the dark amber product, Schroeder said. Big companies often boil their sap immediately after it leaves the tree, creating a far less developed taste.
“You get to a point where there’s actually not much flavor left at all,” Schroeder said. “It’s not a bad thing to let it sit in the tanks for a bit. The question is how much.”
As for his own taste in syrup, Schroeder said it all depends on the pairing.
“It’s hard to beat that one on vanilla ice cream,” he said, pointing to the lightest sample. “On the other hand, if you’re putting something on bacon you’re better off going [dark].”
The Poor Farm Sugar Works open house will take place between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 25 at 825 Poor Farm Rd., Colchester.