Something was wrong at Dunn Maple Farm on this Sunday late in March. The only sound on the cold and grey afternoon was that of a cold, spring wind.
Normally this time of year the maple farm would’ve participated in Maine’s largest annual syrup event – Maine Maple Sunday.
Scott Dunn, owner of Dunn Family Maple in Buxton and president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, shook his head grimly when he said that for syrup producers in the state, losing out on Maine Maple Sunday was like football cancelling the Superbowl.
“50 percent or more of our sales come in on this weekend,” he pulled his cap down tighter as though to tamp down the frustration and disappointment in his head.
Dunn looked the part of a syrup maker with a red maple leaf emblazoned on his cap, green Carhartt work pants, and tall rubber boots.
He knelt down on one knee with what was basically a small flamethrower in hand. A jet of bright red flame leaped out of the nozzle and turned the pile of wood in the evaporator into a crackling fire.
It had been a rough week for Dunn. Last week he issued the recommendation to Maine producers to postpone their events. But making syrup, or ‘sugaring,’ (Dunn explained that originally, Native Americans made sugar, not syrup, from sap so that they had a ‘stable product’ that wouldn’t mold during the year), could act as an escape for him during difficult times.
“The other day when I had the whole mess with having to shut down Maple Sunday, I came down and boiled by myself. It was a day to just do my thing. I just worried about making maple syrup.”
Dunn’s sugarhouse sat at the bottom of the slope of his backyard. The dark wood exterior and neatly stacked wood gave the rustic feel of a solitary wood cabin. The interior was lined with pine boards. Metal machines and vats glimmered under the lights inside and produced a constant hum. Sap boiled voraciously in the evaporator. A sugary-smelling and craving-inducing smoke billowed up.
Dunn obliged that craving.
“Here, try this,” he collected steaming hot syrup directly from a pipe that stuck out of the evaporator. He poured a sample into a small paper cup and handed it to me. “Be careful, that’s about 170 degrees.”
Dunn was a handyman. During summers in high school he worked as a heavy truck mechanic.
“I knew the guy, he was looking for help so that’s what I did for money. I’ve always been more hands on. Desks and me don’t get along.”
Knowing how to work machines helped Dunn run his business, especially as he sought to increase his production every year.
“My whole thing is efficiency. So if I’m going to expand, it needs to be right for me. We picked up trees on Blake Road this year, trees I’ve been eyeing for years. I got in touch with the landowner and he said, ‘yep.’”
But in an industry that he believes is defined by its traditions, there is a tension between the old ways and modern methods. This could cause controversy among sugarmakers.
A process called reverse osmosis allowed Dunn to process larger quantities of sap. Using a large, whirring machine standing in a closet in the sugarhouse, Dunn removed the sugars from the sap. This decreased the water content and allowed him to spend much less time and burn much less wood to boil through all the sap.
“There’s always the naysayers. Like with the reverse osmosis, they say syrup made that way tastes different. Or they’ll say you can taste syrup that’s made on a wood fire. I’ll grant them the wood fire because of the nature of having some smoke inside the building.”
Dunn increases his syrup production every year and still wants more.
“I’ve seen 100,000 to 200,000 tap operations. I dream and say, boy, I’d love to have one of those.”
He poured steaming hot syrup from a metal cylinder into a simple box-shaped vat. Even though he sought growth, he warned aspiring producers against going too big too quickly.
“You need to learn what works for you. I started small and grew over time. But as I grew I became more efficient.”
And there was more to the business than one might realize before actually trying it.
“In the spring it’s nonstop. Late nights, long days aren’t uncommon. You’ve got a short window for your season. It’s like farmers harvesting in the fall. If you miss it, you’re gonna have a problem.”
Dunn opened a heavy metal hinge, revealing the roaring fire and sending a blast of heat into the sugarhouse. He tossed logs into the blaze. As a fireman who logged 24 hour shifts at the station, running a business and providing for his wife and two daughters must’ve been tiring.
Why was he willing to work so hard?
“I’ve always had a work ethic. If you can work and see the result – I love to fill a barrel of syrup because you get to see something for your work.”
He sipped from a Coors Light can and paused for a moment. For him, sugarmaking ultimately was about bringing people together.
“My favorite is the nights in here with friends and family. I don’t have to worry about running the evaporator because some of the guys are doing it for me. I can sit back and just enjoy the time with everyone. When we get done maple weekend, we take everyone who helped us out to eat. I can’t even talk to everyone because there’s 25 to 35 people.”
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be happening this year due to concerns regarding the virus. Mainers will miss out on a chance to welcome the end of the cold days and the arrival of the new season’s relief.
“Maple Sunday signifies ‘spring is here.’ People have been hunkered down all year, the weather is getting better, it’s their chance to get out. Now people aren’t leaving their houses. They’re staying inside. It has changed the season.”
Still, there was hope for producers and for those who want to taste spring’s sweetness.
“All the sugarmakers have product available almost year-round. If you know someone or live near a sugarhouse, call them or knock on their door. The syrup is going to be there – we’re making it right now.”
Dunn had said he was glad for a chance to talk syrup, especially on this weekend when there should’ve been crowds of Mainers getting out to see what their state’s producers had to offer.
“Pretty much any sugarmaker you go up to, if you go in their sugarhouse, their face will light up. I could talk about this for hours.”
His wide eyes told me he was serious about that. But he thinks he will have to wait until autumn to reschedule Maine Maple Sunday.
For now, on that chilly night, Dunn’s sugarhouse sat silently. An orange glow shone from the windows into the darkening evening. Smoke rolled up from the roof and a metal pipe shot sparks into the night.