After a savage winter beset by Nor’easters and valiant storms, sugaring is underway. The Williams Farm family in Deerfield, MA has been sugaring since 1853. They started tapping in early March, with their first boiling on March 14.
“The season’s off to a slow start so far; we’re hoping to have a good month of March, maybe beginning of April. You never can tell,” said Kenneth Williams IV, best known as Chip, 5th generation, speaking at their Williams Farm Sugarhouse restaurant. It is two to three weeks later than usual, as traditionally, they start sugaring Feb. 20, if the weather allows. What they waited for was 40-degree days with 20-degree nights for the sap to run.
They started tapping the week of March 7 and met winter’s valiance with valiance of their own. “It was a lot of work, used some snowshoes. Luckily this week, with the warm weather, the snow has settled. It’s easier to get around in the woods. It’s just one of those things. You have to work with Mother Nature,” said Williams IV who is on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Massachusetts Maple Producers Association (MMPA) with 350 plus members. He runs the business with his parents, Kenneth, Sandy, (4th generation Williams) and Pam Williams. He hopes to teach his one-year-old son, Miles, sugaring when he’s older. His wife Alissa mainly takes care of Miles. His sisters Casey and Kelly Williams also help out.
The Williams have 5,000 taps of their own, and buy sap from other producers. They own a couple hundred acres of farmland that they rent out to other farmers who plant sod and potatoes. Until two years ago, they had filled the fields with their own corn. “We don’t own any of the land we tap on. We trade, giving the landowners syrup for letting us tap their trees. It really works out great; we get the sap to make the syrup, they get the syrup.” Last year’s syrup tally was 1,500 gallons.”
They pass on the sweet rewards of their labor to the diners that keep a close watch for the steam coming out of the open vents of sugarhouse roofs as they would a train coming, to signal it’s time to travel in droves to their restaurant, and pour syrup over their pancakes to shake off the winter blues. “The steam coming out is the best advertising there is,” said Chip. “People want to see the process.” Come mid-April, with no more sap to boil and no steam, they close.
First generation Milton Hubbard Williams owned one of 13 sugarhouses on Mount Toby in Sunderland in the mid-1880’s. According to his diary, he traded maple sugar for coats and pants in Amherst in March 1853. By 1889, he gathered 20 barrels of sap in four successive days; “the best week I ever knew.” He sold 100 gallons to eager Amherst customers at 30 cents a glass quart, or a gallon in a tin for $1.
His success carried on. In the mid-60’s, Kenneth Jr. and his brother Milton relocated the sugarhouse to Route 47 in North Sunderland. For the final move in 1994, the Williams built a post and beam sugarhouse in its prime Deerfield location, branching out their agribusiness with a restaurant that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Pam started working at the former sugarhouse at age 16 when they sold coffee and donuts, and their trademark sugar on snow. When they relocated and first opened the restaurant it was open seven days a week but is now open Friday through Sunday, March to mid-April. Her favorite part of the short sugaring season is, “Seeing people coming back every year. It’s a tradition for them and a tradition for us. A lot of people keep in touch and do mail order, especially at holidays.”
Indeed, diner Michael Perry from Shutesbury, MA returned for his 6th year to have his favorite: blueberry pancakes. His son Joseph Perry dined on eggs and sugar on snow. “I always get it,” he said. It is crushed ice-faux snow-but years ago, real snow was used. West Springfield’s Lauren Brassil who dined on blueberry pancakes accompanied them. Chip enjoys seeing the return customers, and likes being outside in winter, especially after such a long one. The only effect of the deep snow was the first day’s yield was low in sugar content that required more boiling, but by the second day the sugar content was up.
They use reverse osmosis, keeping the sap left after evaporating water out of it in a three by 12 foot evaporator.
Chip takes vacation time from his full time job position at the physical plant at nearby Deerfield Academy during sugaring season. As his parents are retired, they have more free time to devote to the business.
The family encourages people interested in trying sugaring to do so, and sell how-to books, which help people understand how much work it entails.
From his position as MMPA board member, Chip observes maple sugaring as steady and growing; “The industry as a whole, more taps being put up each year, maybe increasing in small producers.”