Ken Allen feeds wood into the firebox, while Matt Swain, whose family operates Heritage Farm Pancake House in Sanbornton, watches the shape the boiling sap forms as it drips off the ladle. When it starts to "apron," he said, the syrup is ready. (Adam Drapcho/The Laconia Daily Sun)
Area sugar houses are prepared for crowds during NH Maple Weekend
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
SANBORNTON — Matt Swain grew up in a dairy and beef farming family on Hunkins Pond Road in Sanbornton. His grandfather still keeps a few cows for milking but the changing dynamics of the farming industry have driven him, along with most small New England dairy farms, out of commercial operation. The Swain family is still farming, though, and Matt and Rachel’s five children – ranging in age from 3 months to 21 years – will have an economically sustainable operation to take over, should they choose, and it’s all thanks to maple syrup.
The Swain Farm began tapping trees and boiling sap more than 50 years ago, as a side operation to its milk and beef production. At that time, Matt said, his father and grandfather sold their milk for 12 cents per pound, and their syrup fetched $12 per gallon. A half-century later, the bulk rate for milk has only risen about four pennies per pound, yet the Swain family’s syrup fetches more than five times the amount it once sold for. Matt and Rachel, who operate Heritage Farm Pancake House, offer syrup for $18 per pint, or $65 per gallon. Matt said he hopes to produce about 600 gallons of syrup this year, about a quarter of which will be poured over pancakes at the family-run restaurant. Most of the remaining 400 gallons will be purchased by diners as they’re on their way out.
Though the Swains’ sugar house is relatively new, built a dozen years ago onto the side of the home that was converted into their restaurant, Matt’s operation is little changed from the way his grandfather made syrup. He repurposed a vacuum pump from the milking operation to draw sap out of some of his 2,500 tapped sugar maples, but many of the taps drip into galvanized pails. While most of his contemporaries use reverse-osmosis systems to concentrate the sap before the boil, and fire their boilers with oil or other petroleum products, Matt puts his sap directly into a large, 1970s-era boiler that will consume 30 cords of firewood by the time he caps his last batch of the season.
The dedication to wood as his heating source comes at a cost. Although he cuts the wood from his own property, the reliance on cordwood makes his sugaring a year-round task. As soon as he finishes boiling this year, he was begin harvesting trees to fill his woodshed, so that the wood will be seasoned and ready for the 2018 boiling.
Swain insists that the wood comes with a benefit, too. The end product captures a bit of smokiness, he said, which isn’t present when using more modern heating methods.
“It’s like cooking your steak in the microwave, versus over a grill,” he said.
Celebrating their signature product, Heritage Farm Pancake House will be one of the many small producers around the state that will be open for the NH Maple Weekend. Heritage Farm will be open on Saturday, serving breakfast from 7:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., and will offer syrup samples, doughnuts and wagon rides until 4 p.m. Heritage Farm will be closed on Sunday.
Visit www.nhmapleproducers.com for details and a full list of participants. Other local participating producers include: In Plymouth, Bridgewater Mountain Maple and Spike's Shack o' Sugar; in Gilmanton, Fillion Maple Farm and Still Seeking Farm; in Bristol, Walker's Sugar Shack; Huckins Maple Farm in Tilton; Shepherd's Hut Market in Gilford; and in North Sandwich, Young Maple Ridge Sugar House.
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