By Clark Judge.
This article was updated March 16, 2020 due to COVID-19.
(March 11, 2020) — Blame it on climate change, global warming or just plain bad luck, but a mild winter in Killingworth has claimed its first victim: The Sugar House at Parmelee Farm.
No, the house isn’t going anywhere. But a cache of machinery to boil, process and bottle maple syrup is. Volunteers at the Farm this week started pulling taps and shutting down the operation, with their final sale this weekend. That’s not only earlier than last year when the Sugar House began selling maple syrup; it’s two weeks earlier.
In 2019 volunteers collected and processed sap from the Farm’s sugar maple trees into late March, with the last batch bottled on March 25. Twelve months later, however, they shut down the second week of the month for a reason all too obvious to Killingworth residents.
“Unusually warm weather for this time of year,” said Tim Gannon, chairman of the Parmelee Farm committee.
Rewind the videotape to 2019, and you’ll find nearly a foot of snow on March 4. Now fast-forward to this year, and there wasn’t a foot of snow the entire winter. In fact, the temperature last Sunday ranged in the mid-50s before soaring into the mid-60s the following afternoon. Worse, at no time this week are temperatures expected to drop below freezing.
While that’s good for hikers and dog walkers who frequent the 132-acre Parmelee Farm, it’s not for denizens of the Sugar House. The combination of warm days and nights slows the flow of sap and signals the end of maple syrup season, with empty-to-near empty white buckets the evidence.
And they are everywhere at Parmelee Farm.
So is Gannon, who oversees the army of volunteers who process the sap and produce the syrup. He conceived the idea of starting a Sugar House over two years ago, then approached Parmelee problem-solver John Byrne (“I present the problem,” said Gannon, “and he solves it”) about constructing it. When Byrne said the building could be done at minimal cost, the project was launched. Funding was sought through public contributions, grants were secured, construction services were donated and labor was performed by – who else? – volunteers.
Construction began in early July, 2018. It was completed on Aug. 24, just seven weeks later.
“One of our missions at Parmelee Farm is education and agriculture,” said Gannon, a former teacher. “(Producing syrup) is something that was done here at one point by farmers, and we just figured it would be natural fit.”
He was right. In its first year of operation, the Sugar House’s 110 taps yielded 41.8 gallons of syrup, and every bottle was sold.
That provoked Gannon to raise the bar in 2020. Two-hundred taps were installed, nearly twice the number of 2019. A vacuum pump was introduced to connect 72 of the taps to the Sugar House through an extensive network of plastic tubes. There were more volunteers, with 20 regulars available to collect, bottle and label the syrup. And there were more trees, tapped at remote locations in Killingworth and transported to Parmelee.
The idea was to double production from 2019, but that didn’t happen. While Parmelee produced more syrup than the previous year, it wasn’t much more – with 56 gallons bottled before an early spring ended operations.
“Under normal circumstances,” Gannon said, “if we had two more weeks – which is what we had last year – and if the weather cooperated from a freeze/thaw standpoint, we would have done it. It’s the type of thing where you’re at the mercy of the weather.”
Nevertheless, he and his volunteers — some of whom worked all week — consider the season a success, and it’s easy to see why. The vacuum system saved on labor. More persons pitched in to help. Fifteen boys and girls from Haddam-Killingworth Middle School formed a Sugaring Club, working twice a week at the Sugar House. And local groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and a photography club took weekend tours.
More to the point, the demand was as strong as it was a year ago. Eight-and-12 oz. bottles of syrup sold out four consecutive weekends … including last weekend when the Farm limited customers to two bottles apiece.
“Other than the weather,” said Gannon, “we’re pleased. We had more volunteers this year than we had last year. More new people signed up. The people who volunteered on a regular basis were here on a regular basis. And people who were willing to collect, as well as let us tap, made a big difference.”
That’s the good news. The better is that as operations wound down this week, the Farm set aside bottled syrup for the state’s first Maple Weekend, scheduled for March 21-22. But officials on Thursday canceled the event because of the coronavirus outbreak, so Gannon and Co. will make the last batch – a collection of 69 12-oz. and 48 8-oz. bottles – available for sale this weekend (10 a.m. – 4 a.m.) But that’s it for the winter. The next time you’ll see Parmelee Farm syrup marketed will be September at the annual Artisan Market.
“I want to say thanks to all our volunteers who came out this year,” Gannon said. “More people know the process now.”
Photos except Sugar Shack by Clark Judge. Sugar Shack photo from Parmelee Farm Facebook page.