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Photo of Cecile Branon

In This State: A Sugaring Family’s Gamble Paid Off Sweetly

A visitor to the Branon family’s sugarhouse in Fairfield is offered a seat in a handcrafted pine chair at a butternut table, and is handed a mug of coffee flavored with two popular Vermont products: milk and maple syrup.

The furniture and milk are about the only things that don’t scream maple at Branon Family Maple Orchards.

It’s the last week of February, nearly the start of sugaring season, and Cecilia Branon, 54, is a buoyant host, serving the hot beverage on a cold day and explaining how the Branons’ maple operation has grown rapidly over the years.

Not surprisingly, she begins with the weather, always of concern. It had been cooperating before this visit. Two feet of snow lay across Fairfield, thanks to a weekend storm. And in next-door Bakersfield, in a natural bowl called Cold Hollow, where the family has 1,000 acres, the snow was waist-high on a tall adult.

Snow keeps things cooler, Cecile notes, prolonging the season in their little snow belt, giving them perhaps a few more days of sugaring when the rest of the state is hit by too-warm temperatures. It also will quench the thirst of the maples, which have been looking a little dry lately.

Cecile’s husband, Tom, is in the woods tapping trees with his work crews, but she and their college-age son Evan take time out to relate how sap at the Branon farm is collected, stored, boiled into syrup, and how some of it goes into specialty products, from candy to maple cream to barbecue sauce.

Some they sell at the farm, but lots goes to restaurants, food co-ops and granola makers.

Most is trucked in bulk to the Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville, a major distributor to points across the U.S.

“They package for Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma,” says Cecile, pointing out how much Branon syrup gets around.

The anteroom with the butternut table is bedecked with evidence of hard work and maple mastery: Blue ribbons from Franklin County Field Days; framed citations and expressions of gratitude for volunteer work in the Vermont maple community; and snapshots chronicling the family’s sugaring exploits over the decades.

The photos go back almost to the time Cecile, a St. Albans teenager, met Tom, developed a crush, and began working with him on the farm. She milked and hayed and pushed manure, doing tasks, she says with a laugh, that women usually didn’t do.

In spring, she and Tom, with horses, brought sap from tree to sugarhouse. And wouldn’t you know, they eventually married, and began having sons, four of them.

In 1984, with the purchase of the dairy farm from Tom’s parents, the couple became the fifth generation of Branons to work the land. At the height of their dairying operation, they were milking 100 cows year-round, says Cecile.

Yet, things eventually turned sour due to events beyond their control. And then they turned sweeter.

The Cows Left

In the early 2000s, like other Vermont farmers, they began struggling with low milk prices, which were about the same level in 2004 as they were in 1984.

Tom and Cecile faced another challenge: Their buildings and milking equipment needed upgrading, but to upgrade, they would need to milk more cows, and to milk more cows, they would need more cropland.

“We were burned out,” Cecile says. They saw the vicious circle, and got out.

“The hardest day of my life was the day the cows left, May 17, 2004,” says Tom, chatting later by phone after a day in the woods. “When you’ve been dairying all your life, change looks scary.”

The Branons had always tapped maple trees, plenty of them, but they had always considered it a form of diversification, a way to help even things out, to compensate for the ups and downs of dairying.

But what they did after the cows were sold was virtually unprecedented in Vermont. They went full-bore into sugaring. Instead of buying more cropland, they bought more forestland.

“Tom and I were pretty determined,” Cecile says.

They now have 75,000 taps across 2,400 acres — numbers that would have been unheard of several years ago.

“There are probably four or five sugar-makers who have 50,000 or 60,000 taps, but Tom’s taps are probably the most,” says Henry Marckres, the state’s maple-sugar specialist.

“To be that big takes a tremendous amount of land and trees, and it requires a huge expense,” says Marckres. “Lots of people don’t want that risk.”

Hold The Folklore

The Branon operation would disappoint a nostalgia seeker. No wood smoke curling up from the sugarhouse; no buckets on trees, sap dripping sonorously; no old Vermont Life scenes of horses pulling sleds across snow.

But, boy, is it efficient. Theirs is a high-tech operation with a spotless sugarhouse with, after all, an anteroom of handsome pine chairs and butternut table. Not to mention the adjoining rooms with the oil-fired evaporator; vacuum pumps; miles of plastic tubing; dozens of 55-gallon barrels into which syrup will soon be poured; reverse-osmosis equipment; ATVs for driving along forest trails; and, out back, a tanker truck, two 22,000-gallon sap-holding tanks and a 16,000-gallon water tank to hold water recaptured during the evaporation process.

Hear that whooshing sound? That’s water from that water tank, running through and cleaning copper pipes.

Because of the Branons’ efforts, and those of fellow sugar-makers in the area, Franklin County is considered the state’s top producer in the state that turns out the most syrup in the nation — 1.4 million gallons last year.

Marckres, the syrup specialist, guesses Vermonters put up some 3 million taps each season, a number that’s been rising significantly, thanks, in part, to steady market demand.

Like all farmers, though, the Branons understand their crop is vulnerable to natural forces, such as the unusually warm temperatures that have hit Vermont in March. Scientists say the amount of calcium in the soil is diminishing in some areas, affecting tree health. Climate change is a worry.

Looking out the window at the snow, much higher on this February day than in other parts of the state, Evan says he’s not too worried about global warming, but he doesn’t appreciate the toll taken by ice and powerful winds that some believe is another manifestation of climate change. He does worry about the maple-tree-killing Asian long-horned beetle that’s turned up as close as Massachusetts.

In late 2010, a windstorm combined with heavy snow to knock down 6,000 trees on the Branon Farm, “then we had wind on the second weekend of April last year that knocked down another 1,000 trees,” says Cecile.

The Branons anticipated difficulties, and show no regrets about leaving dairy farming.

“Their choice was to man-up and go ahead with sugaring, or become nine-to-fivers,” says Evan of his parents.

“When they sold the cows, they took a huge, huge chance, and now they are kind of ahead in the ballgame.”

A Postscript

Cecile reported March 15 that the Branons had produced only about one-third of their expected crop of maple syrup, but were still several inches of snow in Fairfield and a good 2 feet in Bakersfield. She said temperatures on her farm have been about 10 degrees colder than in central and southern Vermont, but with the forecasts of warm temperatures for the rest of March, “we have to take it day-to-day.” She added: “Our higher elevations in the north may be our saving grace.”

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details: Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance reporter and editor.

Maple Addendum

It’s March 20, the first day of spring, and it’s sunny and in the 70s, and the Branon Family is still boiling maple sap.

Yet Cecile Branon expresses concern. She reports that Branon Family Maple Orchards has only half to two-thirds of its expected crop of maple syrup. Without colder weather, the season will end in a day or two.

What began the last week in February as a promising season appears to be anything but. “We are taking it a day at a time,” says Cecile. “I don’t think anyone is making what they made last year.”

Many sugarmakers throughout the state have already called it quits.

Cecile says she and neighboring sugarmakers are hoping for the return of seasonal weather Friday through next Tuesday, with night-time temperatures in Fairfield and Bakersfield expected below freezing.

The sunny and warm daytime weather already is, in some areas of their farm, “bringing out the buds and drying the trees.”

Cecile reports that prospects for a continued season look better on the family’s Bakersfield holdings, where in some spots there’s still a foot of snow. She says the Bakersfield maples are well served by countless “underground brooks” and a high water table.

“We might salvage the season,” she says, “if we get rain or snow, and cold nights.”

She adds that it’s too early to guess whether low production might at least result in higher prices.

“We will have to see what happens in Maine and Quebec, because our prices depend (largely) on what kind of crop they have there.”

Originally published on Stowe Today.

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