March Featured Vendor – Hillsboro Sugarworks

According to a 2015 report by the University of Vermont, funded by The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, there were 1,553 maple producers in 2012, based on the most recent census. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service provides more evidence for just how dominant a force maple syrup production is in Vermont. In 2018, more than five million taps produced just under 2 million gallons of maple syrup, by far the most of any state.

When the temperature drops to freezing at night but the days begin to warm, the sap starts running, and March, right in the middle of maple sugaring season, is a great month to highlight a maple syrup producer as our Featured Vendor. We spoke with Dave Folino about his Hillsboro Sugarworks and the story behind the maple syrup they’ve kept flowing since 1979.

How did Hillsboro Sugarworks get its start?

Hillsboro Sugarworks started as a backyard/woodshed hobby with 95 buckets in 1979. The next year, it grew to 600 leaky buckets and a single workhorse.  Like a lot of Vermont maple businesses, it grew and took on a life of its own. Within ten years, we were tapping thousands of trees and using maple tubing. Until 2002, sugaring was a large hobby, but in 2003 we made the decision to acquire an adjoining property and expand to the point where we could make a living entirely off of sugaring.

What can you tell me about the history of the land you are on and how long sugaring has happened there?

Our sugarbush now comprises two old farms, both of which sugared. Each sugarbush seems to have been in operation from about the 1830s until shortly after World War II. We still find evidence of the past sugaring activities, such as buckets, bricks, and tubs, spread over the mountainside.

Your website describes you as a “full time, sustainable, year-round business.” What are the challenges to achieving that? How do, or did, you overcome those challenges?

In 2003, we made the decision to attempt to become full-time sugarmakers. While of course we only produce syrup in the spring, we spend the rest of the year packing and delivering syrup and maintaining our network of tubing and pipes that run throughout the woods. This network is now almost 100 miles long.

How much to you stick to older, more “traditional” methods and how much do you employ “modern” technology?

While we have learned a lot from our neighbors who have sugared for generations, we’ve also tried new technologies that enable us to be as efficient as possible, while still maintaining Vermont’s well-deserved reputation for producing excellent flavored maple syrup. We were one of the first sugar makers in the state to use reverse osmosis, which greatly reduced or fuel consumption during the boiling process. We were also one of the first producers to adopt the smaller size spout to reduce the damage to the trees from tapping.

What sets you apart from other Vermont maple syrup producers?

We hesitate to say what separates us from other Vermont maple producers because all of us are unique, and we think there are many good producers in the state. What we hope to consistently produce is excellent syrup, efficiently made and done in a manner that is sustainable. We hope to improve our woods from one year to the next so that our woods are healthier in the future. Being a state director for several years for the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association helps to stay current on concerns and the health of the maple sugaring industry in Vermont, potential threats to the industry, and new laws being made.

When exactly is maple sugaring season and how long does it last? How can you tell when it’s starting and when it’s over?

Sugaring season now lasts much longer than it did when we started. Part of the reason is that we have more trees to tap, but also the weather has changed in the last 40 years. Maple sap runs when the temperature is above 32°. Winter is more variable now than it was in 1980. In the early years of our maple operation, we never started tapping before March 1. Now we start tapping in the middle of January and can make syrup any time after that.

What does being organic mean in terms of your process for making maple syrup?

Organic certification is primarily about our care within the sugarbush and sugarhouse, but also about verification and documentation of our processes. We were the first sugarmaker in the state that became certified organic through NOFA. Organic certification provides an endorsement and verification that healthy processes were followed. We are vigorously inspected. We are highly audited, and we are committed to producing pure, sustainable maple syrup, so we feel good about our organic status. Certification is also an assurance to the consumer that good practices were followed.

Your website mentions that you strive to make syrup in the “most environmentally friendly way.” Can you elaborate on that?

Maple syrup production is a balancing act. Because maple sap is so dilute, it requires a tremendous amount of energy to convert it into maple syrup. Maple sap is almost indistinguishable from water. It’s hardly sweet. So, to convert it to maple syrup requires a lot of energy and technology. We try to balance the application of technology to optimize efficiency while still retaining good flavor. We use reverse osmosis and steam-powered evaporation to accomplish this.

How do current environmental concerns, such as climate change, impact maple syrup production?

Climate change is a big challenge. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the future. It’s already happening. We are already dealing with more intense summer storms with heavy rains and stronger winds. We’re dealing with dramatic swings and winter temperatures that influence when sugaring starts and finishes. Since our woods is high elevation and steep, we get extremely high winds and torrential runoff. We spend a tremendous amount of time cutting up blown over trees and maintaining our road system so that we reduce potential erosion.

In what ways do you keep everything you do as local as possible?

We’ve been very fortunate over the years to develop a large number of local and loyal markets. For the most part, our syrup is sold within 50 miles of our sugarhouse. Many of our accounts and customers have been repeatedly buying our maple syrup for over 30 years. We’re very appreciative and proud of this.

How do you work to protect your woods and wildlife habitat?

We’ve been working on improving our sugarbush since 1980. Through constant selective thinning, we have improved our woods. It is gratifying to see a stand of trees which were thinned in the 80s or 90s now flourishing. We use a method which we call drop and chop, which simply means that we leave all of the wood in the woods. When we thin the woods, we simply drop the tree and cut it into small pieces and leave it in the woods. In this manner, we retain our organic matter and eliminate the possibility of damaging our woods from skidding logs down the mountain. It also helps create habitat in the understory for our forest friends to live in.

How would you summarize the process of making maple syrup to someone with no knowledge of how it’s made?

Maple syrup production is simple. All you need to do is remove water. In our sugarbush, it takes about 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The objective is simple. The process is complex.