By RUSSELL JONES
Back in the woods, east of Pittsford, lies a family farm that celebrated its centennial year last year. Surrounded by thousands of maple trees, two young Vermonters are using modern technology to produce a centuries old product.
Jacob Powsner, 28, standing in the snow in his overalls and wool hat, boils down his job to just one simple statement.
“Most of farming is just moving stuff,” he said.
Of course, what he and his partner do is much more complicated than that. It is also a technologically advanced process now, compared to when the business started.
“My great-grandmother had a sugarhouse off in the woods for years, but it was a much smaller scale,” Jenna Baird said as she trudges through the snow on the way to the maple tap, her Carhartt vest zipped up to keep the chill out. “When my father came back from college in 1979 he built his own sugarhouse,” she recalled.
Her father, Bob, bought the farm from his parents that same year. The Baird Farm is about 160 acres of woodlands, but Powsner said that sugarers don’t really talk about their operations in terms of acreage. They prefer to talk taps.
“We have these trees over here, and back over there from the saddle to the top of the hill,” the 28-year-old says as she points out their sugarbush. “We have a total of just about 11,000 taps.”
Taps that Baird, Powsner, and her father install every January. Those taps draw enough sap to make about 6,000 gallons of syrup a year.
“It takes about a month to get all the taps in,” Baird said. “Once we get them in we connect them to the lines that lead to the sugarhouse.”
Baird’s family has owned the farm for 100 years, it was once a dairy farm, and she is the fourth generation to work in the sugarhouse. Back in her great-grandmother’s time, maples were tapped and a bucket was hung from the tree to catch the sap. Those buckets were later carried to the sugarhouse and boiled down into syrup.
“It takes about 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” Powsner said. “Although that depends on the quality of the sap. We hope to get 25 gallons of sap from each tap.”
Nowadays, they have an intricate system of hoses and vacuum lines that draw the sap out of the tree and down the hills to a collection tank before it is pumped back to the boiling room. They have apps on their phones that they can use to monitor the vacuums on the taps.
“Preferably you want all your sap to run downhill on about a 2 percent grade, the vacuum keeps it pulling down all these miles of lines,” Powsner said. “Then it all collects in one of two tanks and from there we move it to the boiling roomusing pumps.”
Once in the boiling room it is stored in one of several stainless steel collection tanks. Before the sap is boiled, though, it is pumped into a reverse osmosis machine where it is filtered and concentrated.
“When the sap comes out of the tree, it’s about 2 percent sugar,” Powsner said. “After we run it through the reverse osmosis, it’s around 18 percent sugar. Finished syrup is about 66 percent sugar.”
After the reverse osmosis process, the sap is moved to a boiler. There it’s boiled down to the thick, delicious consistency that Vermont maple syrup is known for.
“Some people say they can tell the difference in syrup that has been put through reverse osmosis or even syrup that is fired on all-wood stoves,” Baird said, staring down into a stainless steel vat of sap with a smile. “But they’ve done double-blind taste tests that show that’s not true. Good syrup shouldn’t have a smoky flavor anyway.”
The syrup will slowly cook for hours, bubbling and steaming as it thickens.
“The old-timers used to say they could tell when the syrup was ready by how it trailed off the spoon, but we use hydrometers now,” Powsner said, while spooning syrup out of the boiling pan and letting it drip back in. “When it gets the right sugar content, we pump it through a filter that’s like a giant coffee filter before we pump it into the barrels.”
Baird and Powsner met at Rutland High School. Jacob is from Ira while Baird grew up on the farm and after college — Bard College for Powsner and UVM for Baird — the two traveled the country. They spent several years working together at various farms through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.
“They find opportunities for you at different farms and when you get there they give you a place to sleep, or pitch a tent in some cases,” Baird said. “We worked on a few vegetable farms and a goat farm, milking goats.”
The couple lived for a while in Eugene, Ore., before taking a long road trip through Alaska back to Vermont. Now, Baird and Jacob buy the barrels of syrup from her father, who sold the dairy cows back in 1996, and then bottle it up in the bottling room they built. They are in charge of the retail arm of the farm, unsurprisingly called Baird Farm Maple Syrup.
“We hope one day to merge back into one company,” Baird said. “But for now we’re separate from the farm.”
They sell through custom orders on their website and Amazon, as well as selling to people who stop by in person. The farm sells 60 percent of the syrup they produce to a larger farm upstate, and the couple buys the remaining 40 percent of the barrels Baird’s father produces and packages them for retail.Half of all their products are sold between foliage and Christmas, with the two doing all the packaging themselves to get the syrup moving down the road.
If you’re keeping score, that’s 11,000 taps that draw 275,000 gallons of sap through 80 miles of tubing, before being boiled down into about 6,000 gallons of syrup, of which Baird and Powsner buy 2,400 gallons that they sell and ship across the country via their online shops.
Customers can get Baird Farm syrup in cases or by the bottle, from a gallon down to a half-pint, and they are now making other products, including maple ketchup. Baird Farm is holding an open house on Saturday, March 23, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at their farm on 65 West Road in North Chittenden. There will be syrup tastings, tours, and free waffles and home fries, as well as boiling demonstrations.
“It’s going to be a blast,” Baird said enthusiastically. “I love showing people how it’s made and showing them where their food comes from.”