October 18, 2019
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How one man keeps history alive, harvesting sap the old-fashioned way

“Marche!”

Steve Lemieux bellowed the French command across the sugarbush, silver buckets filled with sap in each hand.

His two Canadian horses snorted and tossed their heads, their black manes quivering. Their harnesses creaked as they lurched forward, grunts of exertion and the sounds of metal and leather breaking through the silence of the wood. One of Lemieux’s dogs sat, unfazed, on the slab the horses pulled behind them as it squelched through the muddy trail.

“Woah!” Lemieux said, coaxing the horses to a stop beside him. He emptied the buckets, sap sloshing into the gathering tank the horses pull, then returned the pails to the taps scattered amongst the maples, moving on to the next of 600 buckets in his sugarbush in Fairfield.

It’s hard to find someone like Lemieux. He gathers sap to make maple syrup the old-fashioned way, without modern tubing systems or stainless-steel holding tanks used by many today — and without a motorized vehicle such as a tractor, all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile to drive around his sugarbush.

His reason is simple: “I wanted to bring back the old way of doing it like when I was a kid.”

As a child he loved gathering sap like he does now, and he finds it more interesting, but there aren’t many left that do it like him.

Lemieux is one of a few people left who still collects sap with horses. In Bowdoinham, Earle Mitchell and Penny Savage of Mitchell & Savage Maple Farm also have gathered sap this way, but it’s becoming more rare as advances in sap gathering are made.

Lemieux’s horses are of a special breed. In 1976, fewer than 400 Canadian horses remained, according to The Livestock Conservancy, an organization whose mission is to conserve and promote heritage breeds. The Societe des Eleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens, a group dedicated to the breed, has been successful in promoting its return. Today there are an estimated 2,000 Canadian horses alive. Lemieux owns four of them: Ti-Noir, Hector, Mac and Zie.

His horses are all trained to recognize voice commands, one of which means “walk” in French.

“In French we have a saying: A good horse is worth a good man,” Lemieux said, giving his horse Mac a pat.

“I personally think a good horse is worth more than a good man. A horse never complains, he always shows up for work, and he never asks for a raise,” he said with a laugh.

Lemieux grew up in Quebec where his father bred Canadian horses. He can’t remember a time when he didn’t love working with horses.

“I had a team of Shetland ponies when I was a kid,” Lemieux said. “My father had a little sugarbush, and I used to go around with my team of Shetland ponies and gather sap.”

He was 12 or 13 at the time, he said.

“In the little town where I come from in Quebec, everybody taps trees. It’s a way of life,” Lemieux said.

According to the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, Canada produces 71 percent of the world’s pure maple syrup, 91 percent of which is produced in Quebec.

“The country’s Amerindian peoples taught the early settlers how to harvest sap and boil it to make maple syrup,” the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers reports. “Today, Canadian maple syrup is exported to approximately 50 countries, including the U.S., which is the primary importer. In 2007, Canada produced 67.6 million pounds of maple syrup yet exported 67.7 to the U.S. using reserve supply from previous years to support the growing exportation demand.”

Lemieux uses a team of horses in his sugarbush to help collect sap from the trees tapped along the trails. After collecting the sap he pulls up to the sugar house he built that sits below a stone-walled bank he constructed by hand and siphons the sap out. The sap is siphoned into antique holding tanks in the sugar house and then fed into an evaporator. His end product is the direct result of hours of labor and long days spent filling the evaporator with wood he cuts and splits on his property.

“If you figure out the man hours — if you figure it all out, I’m probably working for minimum wage, if I’m lucky,” Lemieux said.

Lemieux sugars for many reasons, one of which is because he has free time on his hands before he starts his masonry work again, which he only does from mid-April to Thanksgiving. He doesn’t like being idle, and he has taken advantage of his property and experience with horses to offer the public both maple syrup during sugaring season and sleigh rides during the winter through his business Maine Horse Drawn Services.

Sugaring season came early this year for Lemieux.

“Last year, I didn’t boil for the first time until Maple Sunday. This year, I’m almost halfway through my wood, halfway through the season, and we hadn’t even started last year at this time,” he said.

The sugaring season is entirely dependent on mother nature, as Lemieux said, and after a mild winter, the sap ran early.

Maple sugaring has gone through many changes in Lemieux’s lifetime. Lemieux, 52, can recall when his neighbors gathered sap with horses like he does today. As a teenager of 15 or 16 years old, he remembers the first guy in town who started using a tubing system.

“It was the talk of the town,” Lemieux said. “Now, you go back to that same town, and you have a hard time finding a guy doing this with horses. It’s changed a lot.”

Lemieux moved to Massachusetts when he was 21 years old and started a masonry business, P.S. Masonry, before moving to Maine in 2000. He offers masonry and other services out of his Fairfield home.

“I didn’t like the suburbs or the city, so I moved here,” Lemieux said. “Now I’m living a little redneck, hillbilly country life, and I love it.”

He decided to stick to his roots and start sugaring, but the sugarbush on his property needed a lot of work. He produced 73 gallons during sugaring season in 2015 and is aiming for about 80 this year, which will be his third season.

Lemieux said his operation is small, especially compared to others like his neighbors in Skowhegan at Strawberry Hill Farm, who tap thousands of trees. He sells his product at his sugar house and by Steve and Marilyn Meyerhans, who own The Apple Farm in Fairfield and Lakeside Orchards and Farm Market in Readfield.

“In the industry, 600 taps like what I have here is considered a backyard hobbyist,” Lemieux said. But he has no desire to grow into a large operation. “A bigger operation than this I wouldn’t be interested in. I grew up doing it small with the horse. This is what intrigues me.”

This year, Lemieux will entertain visitors at his sugar house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 26, and on Maine Maple Sunday, the annual statewide event featuring sugar houses around the state. The event is in its 33rd year and is scheduled to take place March 27.

Mark Cooper of the Maine Maple Producers Association said there easily are 50,000 visitors to sugar houses around the state each year on Maine Maple Sunday. There are nearly 100 sugar houses from southern York county all the way to central Aroostook county participating this year.

“It gives the public a chance to see who makes maple syrup and how it’s made,” Cooper said.

Cooper uses a tubing system in his own sugaring operation and said Lemieux’s way of gathering sap is definitely “old-school.”

Though gathering sap with buckets is becoming less common, Cooper said, “there’s certainly a lot of homeowners and small producers who use buckets and consumers like to see it. It’s nostalgic.”

 



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