It's that time of year again when sweet-smelling steam billows from rustic log shacks as sugar makers cook up a product that's become synonymous with Vermont.
Visit a sugar shack in Vermont this weekend and you may see that scene — and get to sample something sweet, too.
The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association will hold an Open House Weekend on Saturday and Sunday, April 2 and 3. The annual event is a chance for the public to celebrate — and learn more about — maple sugaring, a deep-rooted tradition in Vermont's history.
For sugar makers like David Mance of the Mance Family Tree Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt., sugar season is a ritual of spring. He's been taking part in Bennington County's Maple Weekend since it's inception some 15 years ago, he said, and has been making maple syrup for more than 60 years.
"It's awe inspiring when you're out in the woods and suddenly the sap is running, and there's the smell of nature. And it smells even better when it's boiling," he said. "It fills up the senses."
A total of 13 sugar producers in Bennington County, both small and large, will take part in this year's open house.
Dutton Farm Stand in Manchester, Vt., which has been making maple syrup for more than 20 years, has participated in the Open House Weekend since it began.
Across the family's 23 acres of trees are 300 buckets, as well as 3,600 taps with tubing that leads right to the sugar house.
Wendy Dutton said a big part of the weekend is showing people how much work goes into the process.
"A lot of people don't realize how much sap it takes: It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup," she said. "There are even people who have lived around here their whole life and have never been in a sugar house."
Visitors are always welcome to Dutton's sugar house for a tour, and other sugar makers encourage visitors as well. But on Maple Weekend, sugar houses will offer special tours, samples and other surprises.
At Duttons, visitors will be able to sample — and perhaps buy to take home — homemade fudge, jam, donuts and maple sweets, enjoy live music by fiddler and bagpipes players Ben and Alan Partridge and tour the sugar house.
Maple trees need cold weather for the sap to flow, Mance said. And a relatively mild winter means much of the sap has stopped flowing from most trees, but he said some trees in the northern part of the county are still seeing sap.
"There's no snow on the ground now, but last year there was about a foot to 18 inches," Mance said.
But he and other sugar makers have, out of necessity, learned to adapt. In previous years, visitors could try "maple syrup over snow," a classic Yankee treat. But this year, Mance said, visitors will likely get to try pancakes or waffles.
"We'll spend more time taking people out behind the sugar house to show them sap tubing. We'll be able to talk more about the ecology of the forest, the physics about what we do and why we do it. It's especially good to show kids how it works."
A sugar maker is in tune to the subtleties of nature, he said. A south wind won't give you as much of a yield as a north or west wind will.
Some people come back every year, Mance said. Reconnecting with people is one of the best parts of the weekend, he said. And it's one way to keep the tradition alive.
"I've been making syrup since I was a young child and started making it commercially in high school," he said. "My kids grew up with it, and now I have grandchildren. We consider them fourth generation sugar makers. I have a 3-year-old helping me now."
Vermont's sugar makers produced more than 1.3 million gallons of syrup last year, with nearly 4.5 million taps set. For comparison, Maine, Massachusetts and New York produced 553,000, 75,000 and 601,000 gallons, respectively. The total U.S. production came to about 3.4 million gallons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For more information about the Maple Open House weekend, visit the Bennington County Sugarmakers Association at www.benningtonmaple.org.
Or, visit the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association at www.vermontmaple.org.
If you go ...
Stop by one of these participating sugar makers this weekend:
• Armstrong Farm: 614 Rt. 7, Bennington, Vt., Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days
Activities: Refreshments, trivia contest and a door prize
Directions: On Rt. 7, 3 ½ miles south of Rt. 9 & 7 intersection
Accessibility: ¼ mile walk from parking
• Ball Brook Maple: Niles School Road, Pownal, Vt. Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days
Activities: Tours, maple candy and cream making, sales of maple products
Directions: From Pownal Center follow signs 1 mile up Barber Pond Road, then right onto Niles School Road, go 1 mile, sugar house is on the right.
• Dutton Farm Stand: Rt. 11 & 30 Manchester Center, Vt. Hours: noon to 3 p.m. both days
Directions: On 11 & 30 East of Manchester Center
• Glastenview Maple Farm: 571 Glastenview Drive Shaftsbury, Vt. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Activities: Sap house tours of wood-fired evaporator, candy making, maple snacks, and syrup to sample and purchase
• Kobik Family, Maple Hill Maple: 207 Maple Hill Road, Shaftsbury, Vt. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days
Activities: Maple treats, sap-house tour
• Loomis Family Sugar House: 708 West Mountain Road, Shaftsbury, Vt. Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both days
Activities: Sap house tour, Maple treats
• Mance's Tree Farm: 217 Holiday Drive, Shaftsbury, Vt. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days
Activities: Sap house tours, syrup samples and syrup sales. Reverse osmosis demonstrations.
• Merck Forest & Farmland Center: 3270 Route 315 Rupert, Vt. Hours: Visitor Center open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pancake breakfast 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. both days
Activities: Wagon rides, tapping demonstrations, children's scavenger hunt, and more. Pancake breakfast includes Merck Forest sausage and maple syrup, eggs, coffee, juice, and hot chocolate. Adults $10, children 4-12 $5, under 4 free.
Accessibility: 1/4 mile walk or wagon ride to the sap house.
• Mountain Valley Maple Farm, Michael Lourie and Family: 1498 Rt. 153, West Rupert, Vt. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days
Activities: Syrup-making demonstrations and maple products for sale
• Peacock's Pure Vermont Maple Syrup: 133 Lake Paran Road, Shaftsbury, Vt. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days
Activities: Sap house tour, walk the woods learning process, collecting buckets for children.
• Touch of Peace Farm, Peace and Jenn Varga: 831 Chapel Road, Bennington, Vt. Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. both days
• The Wing Farm: 599 Town Line Road, Bennington, Vt. www.wingfarmvermont.com Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days
• XR Maple Farm, Hawley Family: 29 Sugar Shack Road, Arlington, Vt. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days
Activities: Free: sugar house tours, silver dollar pancakes, samples of syrup, jams, cheese, maple products