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Sugar on Snow

Students build new sugarhouse, tap maples at the organic farm
Scott Stokoe and Peter Van Deventer ’08 install plastic tubing around a prime sugar maple located on the Dartmouth Organic Farm. (Photos by Steven J. Smith) 

On a recent late-winter day, Dartmouth Organic Farm Manager Scott Stokoe, Andy Rowles ’65, DMS ’72, and Peter Van Deventer ’08 selected prime sugar maples in the farm’s hilly woodlands above the Connecticut River. As they wrapped plastic tubing around the soon-to-be-tapped trees, their goal was to select the optimal route so the watery sap would travel smoothly down the hill. Though there was still a foot of snow on the ground, it was sunny and above 40 degrees. “It felt like a good day to get out,” said Van Deventer. “My parents have sugar taps in Vermont, and I miss it.”

Though the organic farm is mostly known for its fresh vegetables and other seasonal crops, Stokoe says he hopes to introduce more students to the farm’s surrounding woodlands. Of the farm’s 200 acres, 180 are forest, 18 are cleared for pasture, and two are tilled for gardening. “Just as it was hundreds of years ago in this area, hardwood and pine forests are the dominant ecosystem,” says Stokoe, who also serves frequently as an educational resource for students. “These trees have so much to teach us.”

Last summer, Tom Bonamici ’07 began the process of building the farm’s first-ever sugarhouse. With a team of students and alumni helping, Bonamici used traditional Japanese joinery to create the structure out of beams and boards from locally harvested hemlocks. The house includes a new, larger arch, which will enable sugarers to boil more sap. “The design is stunning, and it will allow us to be much more efficient,” says Stokoe.

Stokoe and students also decided to expand the process by using tubing to collect the sap, as opposed to buckets. The change will likely dramatically increase their annual production of maple syrup. So far this year over 60 sugar maples have been tapped—100 percent more than last year—which may yield about 48 quarts of syrup.

The tubing transports sap to the farm’s new sugarhouse.

Rowles, a retired physician who has sugared for years, explains that the running of the sap is an especially fickle event in nature, and it depends on temperature, sun, snow cover, and even wind. “It happens when the trees decide it’s safe to make leaves,” he says. Stokoe adds that sugaring is one of Northern New England’s oldest forms of harvest, outdating more recent agriculture such as the farming of beans and corn. “There were no honey bees in New England prior to the arrival of Europeans. For Native Americans, maple sap was the only source of sugar.”

Andrew Harvard ’71, director of Dartmouth outdoor programs, says that undergraduates approached him with the idea for this project, and he was happy to support it. “A lot of people don’t know students have been sugaring there in the open field for a decade or so. They deserve a lot of credit for initiating this and for dedicating themselves to it.”

The sugarhouse is located directly across from the organic farmhouse, on Route. 10 about 2 miles north of campus. As Harvard says: “The season is short, so if visitors want to see the process, they should go soon.”


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Last Updated: 12/17/08