Arts, Dining & Entertainment

Stafford Tech sugaring program expands

By Julia Purdy

It doesn’t get more local than this. On a late-winter weekend, Sugar & Spice Restaurant in Mendon is hopping. Tables are full in mid-morning and the kitchen is hard at work. Walt and Lynn Manney, owners, are both working alongside their help, who are bustling about. Walt is the greeter; he gives every person coming in the door a warm welcome. There are many handshakes and slaps on the back as the local regulars come and go, while Lynn takes a breather from the kitchen to catch up on the news with a father and daughter having breakfast at the counter.

The restaurant is unique, even for Rutland County. Clad with weathered barn board on the outside and featuring exposed beams and frame on the inside, the building evokes a traditional sugaring house – which it actually is. The rooftop vent structure is not just for show: three levels below it, the core of the building is a working, old-time sugaring operation, complete with a wood-fired boiler and steaming tanks of sap.

On a recent Saturday morning, Walt Manney shared with the Mountain Times an exciting new project. This year, Sugar & Spice will team up with the Stafford Technical Center to do the sugaring.

Mike Stannard is the instructor in Forestry & Natural Resources at the trade school, which shares the Rutland Senior High School campus down the road. Stannard does hands-on work in the field with the students, helping to select trees, drilling tap holes, coordinating the activity and providing guidance.

A resident of Fair Haven, Stannard began as the forestry instructor at Stafford a year ago, coming from a position as the Rutland High School science teacher, where he specialized in teaching earth science to the freshman class. There, he had helped build a sugaring program.

The forestry program as a whole teaches forest management from the perspective of managing for specific end goals such as establishing and maintaining a sugarbush, preserving habitat and environment, or supplying markets for wood products.

The program tapped 60 or 70 trees for several years and operated a temporary sugaring house with donated, small-scale equipment until this year, when the program was donated a larger evaporator, accommodating more sap and therefore requiring more taps, Stannard explained. With the new arrangement, “We are a 268-tap operation this year,” he said.

How did this collaboration come about? “It was completely serendipitous,” Stannard said. He said he needed to find a sugaring house closer to the school. The school sugaring program has 100 taps on the wooded hillside behind the RSHS campus, and Stannard was looking around for more trees to place another 200 taps. Sugar & Spice could use more helpers to do the boiling. In a neighborly collaboration, Stafford students will tap Sugar & Spice’s trees for the sap, then reciprocate by doing the boiling at Sugar & Spice on Saturdays and Sundays between school breaks. Sugar & Spice will pay the student sugarmakers, who will also earn academic credit for Work-Based Learning.

Clear, subtly sweet maple sap is already dripping into bright green plastic buckets on the hillside behind Sugar & Spice. The sap will be lugged to the students’ sugaring house, but, Stannard said, next year they will install sap lines to run the sap to gathering tanks on-site, as already happens at the school sugarbush.

This year, Stannard has 13 students, nine of whom are new to the program. One young woman is currently doing her co-op internship with the Rutland City forester. “The forestry program brings students in for different reasons but they leave all having the same experiences and skills,” Stannard said. Students can go on to Paul Smiths, a highly regarded forestry school in upstate New York, and to Syracuse University for graduate work. Many become arborists, scientists or game wardens, or work for conservation organizations, he said.

Sugaring is not all the forestry program students do. They help manage the Rutland town forest above Mendon Brook at Journey’s End and along the Wheelerville Road. They help the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service with its sapling tree sale with every year in April, preparing the saplings for sale to the public. “We also adopted the first section of the Appalachian Trail where it branches off the Long Trail near Deer Leap,” Stannard said; they maintain it under the supervision of the Green Mountain Club. The program also partners with The Nature Conservancy and Smokey House in Danby, and helped build raised beds at the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center in Rutland.

When asked how the students like the program, Stannard replied, “I have not seen students more excited for anything than this sugaring project.”

Braden, Bobby and Grady paused to share their thoughts with the Mountain Times. Braden said he really enjoys helping out the community this way and feels he is learning great skills. Bobby is brand new to Vermont, out of New York City and has never done anything like this; his future plans include conservation biology and he says this is excellent preparation for that, getting to know the woods and nature. Grady lives out in the country and has a family sugarbush but is deepening his knowledge of the sugaring process, learning the biology of the trees and what they need. Braden added that the students go on field trips that show them the end products of the forestry/timber industry.

So who gets the syrup? In past years the quantity was so low “it wasn’t worth trying to sell it,” Stannard said. It was sent home with the students, some was given to helpers or other students. This year, the goal is to produce and bottle 50 gallons right in the school sugaring house. Some will be given in bulk to the high school’s culinary program for special breakfasts and recipes. Students will learn to number, label and grade the syrup following state requirements. The season will culminate in a field trip to a maple producer event where they and other tech centers will enter their product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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