By Clark Judge.
(Feb. 24, 2022) — When COVID put our lives on hold two years ago, we wondered when … no, if … life could return to normal. Well, wonder no more.
The Sugar House is back in business at Parmelee Farm.
Yes, for the third time in four years … and the first time since the 2020 pandemic hit … Parmelee Farm is back to making and selling maple syrup. In fact, a group of volunteers will be there this week to bottle and label the syrup, then return on Saturday and Sunday to sell it.
If it seems like old times, it’s because it is.
“We’re very happy to be back,” said Tim Gannon, who oversees approximately 25 volunteers. “It was kind of depressing not to be able to do it last year, but we have a lot of the regulars that have come back.”
You don’t have to look far to find them. They’re everywhere. People like Don Milnes and Bill Karpowicz. Terry Doyle and Bob Lavezzoli. Ed Glynn, Dan O’Sullivan and Jeff and Diane Andrewsikas. The regulars, as Gannon put it, and they’re where they were two years ago – arriving at Parmelee between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. daily and not leaving until after 4 in the afternoon.
All returned two weeks ago when the Sugar House opened for the first time since March 2020, and they immediately went to work tapping sugar maple trees throughout the property. Most trees are hooked up to gravity feeds, with others connected by lines of vacuum tubing that wind through the woods.
In all, there are 150 taps in place at Parmelee. Then there are three off-site properties. Put them together, and a record-breaking season is a real possibility.
Here’s why: Prior to this week, there were two days each with 160 gallons of sap. Then volunteers collected over 200 gallons on Monday, followed by 275 more on Wednesday. Parmelee’s previous one-day high – ever — was 150. Now you know why it’s not a reach for the farm to break its 2020 total of 3,000 gallons of sap and 51 gallons of syrup.
“We hope to go for 60 this time,” said Gannon, “but you’re really at the mercy of the weather. Once it starts to turn warm, and the trees begin to bud, that’s the end of the season.”
We’re nowhere near there. In fact, this week’s forecast is ideal for making maple syrup. Mix warm days with cold nights, and sap doesn’t run. It flows.
Local syrup houses typically operate from early-to-mid February, or Valentine’s Day, to mid-March, or around St. Patrick’s Day. But, as Gannon said, the weather makes that determination. Two years ago, volunteers started collecting in late January. But then they were finished after the first week of March.
“Typically,” said Gannon, “things are getting warmer, so who knows how long we go?”
In the meantime, there’s a flurry of activity in and around the Sugar House … just as there was pre-COVID. Local tours stop by. The Scouts are expected back. A Sugaring Club at the Haddam-Killingworth Middle School, headed by counselor Alan Fortin, regularly appears at Parmelee Monday and Wednesday afternoons to help collect. And, of course, there are always the volunteers.
Three months ago, no one was certain any of this would happen. COVID had yielded to the Delta variant which, in turn, gave us Omicron. It was always something to tighten the grip on everyday activities, and producing maple syrup was one of them. But after consulting his “core group of volunteers” late last year, Gannon said a decision was made to return.
“Many of us are older,” he said, “But (our core group) is vaccinated and ‘boostered’ … and that was key. Because last year at this time there wasn’t the vaccine. I would’ve felt horrible if either I or one of the volunteers caught COVID and got really sick.
“I didn’t want to take that chance this year, so I called Don, Bob and a few of the guys and said, ‘How are you feeling about doing it this year?’ And they said, ‘We’re vaccinated. Let’s go.’”
And so they have … just as they did two years ago … with all proceeds from sales going back into the sugaring program and additional enhancements to Parmelee.
“I expect we’ll be bottling, labeling and displaying Thursday because of the weather (snow is forecast for Friday),” said Gannon, “and Saturday we’ll be ready for sale (at 10:00 a.m.). In the past, we’ve sold out every weekend because the product tastes so good.
“Because of the demand, we ended up last time limiting sales to two bottles at a time per person. And we’re probably going to do the same this year. But we could still sell out in a couple of hours. So, tell people to come early Saturday if they want to get some. It’s so rewarding to see people happy.”
Photos by Clark Judge.