Vermont has a reputation for producing some of the best maple syrup in North America - and for good reason! We chatted with Tina Hartell of Bobo’s Mountain Sugar to learn more about what it takes to make the sweet sticky stuff that we all love. She shares what led her and husband Skye Chalmers into the world of maple sugaring, the process of tapping their trees (all 2400 of them), and who the mysterious Bobo is (is he a real person? The moose on the label?). We’ll be following up with Tina and Skye again next month as they boil the sap in their sugar shack.
First of all, what inspired you guys to start making and selling your own maple syrup?
Our property on Bobo’s Mountain (aka Markham Mountain) was a historic sugarbush. I don’t know this for sure but based on the number of old (125 years+) maples we have, I can only assume that the reason they weren’t cut down for pasture land in the 1800s was because they were used in a sugarbush/woodlot. When we bought the land in 2008, we wanted to farm the land for our family. So turning it back into a sugarbush seemed the right thing to do.
That's great that you preserved the land's heritage. We're curious, who is Bobo?
At the risk of sounding coy, Bobo is anyone who cares for a piece of land, who has a place either in the past or the present.
Speaking of caring for a piece of land, you guys were out this past week tapping your trees. How many maple trees do you tap?
We tap about 2400 trees.
Wow! That's a lot of trees. So what does a typical day of tapping look like?
Tapping is a very repetitive and meditative project. You follow tubing from the main line and at each maple, you examine the tree for previous years’ tap holes and find a spot both horizontally and vertically away from those former holes. Using a cordless drill, you drill a 5/16” hole into the tree approximately 2” deep and lightly hammer a plastic spile into the hole. You then attach the drop line (piece of tubing that connects the tree to the lateral tubing line). Repeat that process 2400 times.
While we’re drilling, we’re also putting in new drop lines, repairing lateral lines, and digging up and tightening up all the tubing. Our main challenges are the terrain and snow pack. Bobo’s Mountain is extremely steep in places and sometimes I’m hauling myself up rock faces using only a dodgy yellow birch branch as support. We’re always wearing snowshoes and this winter it’s been extra challenging.
What tools and provisions do you have to pack for a day of tapping?
The primary tools are a cordless drill and a lightweight plastic tap hammer. Those are all you really need for tapping (along with the 5/16” spiles). But for tubing repairs we carry extra lateral line, extra drop lines, plastic connectors to connect the ends of the lines, and two different tubing tools. There’s a one-handed tubing tool and a two-handed tubing tool. Both are used to attach cold 5/16” plastic tubing to different fittings. We also carry knives, small tubing cutters, and electrical tape to cover any squirrel holes in the lines. We also keep room in our backpack for extra gloves, water, and lots of snacks.
Snacks, definitely important. Are there best practices for proper tapping?
The most important thing to consider is the health of the tree. We make sure we space out the tap holes from year to year so that they’re not near each other, wakening a section of the tree. I also don’t tap compromised trees, and I usually only put one tap in per tree. Except for the very large maples, we put two taps in those.
As you mentioned before, this winter has been challenging. How does tough weather affect your season?
For the time being, we can’t tap when the temps hover around 0F. It’s not healthy for the trees (at those temps the drilling can cause cracking/splitting) or for us. But ultimately we are waiting for the magical combination of 20F nights and 40F+ days. Then the sap will flow! Until then we just wait and watch the weather obsessively. Who knows what this month will bring. Maybe it will be frozen like in 2014, or maybe the cold will break and it will soar to 50F!
Here’s hoping that you're right and we see rising temps this month. Thanks again Tina, and see you again next month!
Photos taken by Skye Chalmers