Rain, sleet, snow and wind buffeted Keene, NH on Saturday, March 25, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the laughter and smiling faces of the contestants and attendees at Stonewall Farm’s 18th Annual Sap Gathering Contest.
This year 16 teams traveled from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire to attend the competition. Some were first-timers. Others have been coming for a decade. George Iselin of Marlborough, NH has been present at all 18 Stonewall Farm Sap Gatherings.
The Sap Gathering Contest, much like a rodeo, is based on work once regularly performed with horses. Long before plastic piping stretched through acres of sugarbushes, there were metal buckets hung on hundreds of sugar maples. A teamster and his team of horses would collect the sap by hand, with perhaps some friends to help.
It was long, laborious work. One can imagine it did not take long for the syrup producers to start comparing: “How much sap did your team gather? How long did it take?” Then, inevitably, “I’ll bet my team is faster than yours…”
And so developed the Sap Gathering Contest. Two horses, one teamster, and two sap runners form a team. The horses pull a sap sled while the sap runners sprint through the sugarbush, gathering buckets of sap, and dumping them in the sled. The teamster drives the horses and the runners.
At the end of the course, the liquid is measured at the dumping station. Rankings are determined by the time taken to complete the course and the amount of liquid collected.
Each team has its own standard for success, and not everyone is concerned with their final score. Some teamsters bring young teams with the sole goal of finishing without mishap. Others are seasoned competitors with an eye on the top spot. Regardless of proficiency, all the participants can be assured of finding supportive, encouraging peers. It is common to hear contestants praising the performance of their opponents.
There is a great deal of time for chatting between runs. Every bucket of sap needs to be refilled for each team, and it is very time-consuming. Volunteers scramble up the hill to get the empty buckets and slide back down to fill them from a hose. Then they haul the full buckets back up the hill and hang them in the sugarbush. It is arguably the wettest, most exhausting job in the contest.
While the buckets are being filled, observers and contestants have plenty to occupy them on the 100-year-old New Hampshire Farm of Distinction.
After completing the sap run, teams are encouraged to make a run through the obstacle course. Cones with tennis balls perched on top mark the course. The goal is to make it through as quickly as possible without displacing the balls. Here is a chance to show off a team’s agility and responsiveness.
Stonewall Farm is also home to a certified organic dairy herd, and visitors can stroll through the barn at their leisure.
The sugarhouse runs boiling demonstrations and offers samples of warm maple syrup. Adjacent to the sugarhouse is a tool museum with a variety of implements sure to inspire discussion.
Children can get a bunny’s-eye-view of a rabbit hutch or pet a variety of livestock. There are wagon rides courtesy of the farm’s Belgian draught horses.
Stonewall Farm’s Sap Gathering is as much about catching up with old friends, checking out other people’s horses, and swapping yarns as it is earning bragging rights for the year. For both contestants and observers, the sense of camaraderie is what brings them back year after year.