Karen married into the southern Vermont farm where the Wheelers have milked and sugared since 1931, but she grew up in Massachusetts on her own family’s farm, which also did both. “In the spring, my dad would milk, then go boil, then milk again,” she recalls. “We didn’t really see much of him unless we went out to help.”
Back in those days, Karen’s family hung old-fashioned sap buckets on each tree and she’d help gather the sap by hand and then scrub out the buckets at the end of the season. These days at Wheeler Farm most of the sap is collected through a web of tubing strung between the 4,200 taps in their sugarbush. Karen spends a fair bit of time out in the woods checking the lines to make sure sweet-toothed squirrels haven’t chewed into them. There’s none to spare; it takes about 40 gallons of sap to yield one gallon of syrup.
Karen’s husband, Rob, and his dad, Henry, work together in the sugarhouse overseeing the wood-fired evaporator, breathing in sweet steam and eating Karen’s stick-to-your-ribs breakfasts. Rob’s brother, John, also helps gathering sap and has the very important job of tending to the new calves back at the farm. Karen continues the family tradition of cooking down some of the maple into maple cream and candies.
Henry, who is in his early 80s, is full of commonsense wisdom about farming, life and maple. Sugaring weather must meet specific temperature criteria of highs in the 20s at night and then warm to about 40 during the day to help the sap to flow. “And you don’t sugar in the last quarter of the moon,” he observes, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Henry has always been a mainstay at the sugarhouse,” says Karen. “Without him, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
Despite their fully booked schedules, spring is a favorite time of year for both Karen and Rob. “The warmth of the sun melting the snow; playing snowball with Rex, our black and white Border collie; the sight of steam rising from the sugarhouse and hearing the first robins,” reflects Karen with appreciation.
“The geese flying back, the first blades of grass poking through the snow on the southern side of the farm,” adds her husband. “It’s the season of renewal, the calves being born, the sap flowing. There’s something about birth and rebirth that just reinvigorates the spirit.”
Karen often brings breakfast out the sugarhouse for her husband, father-in-law and any other family members or friends who drop by to help. She might bake sour cream coffee cake, biscuits to be slathered with butter and hot fresh maple syrup, or whip up her hearty breakfast sausage bake, which—you guessed it—is delicious with maple syrup.
Wheeler Farm maple syrup and candies are available from their farmstand and via their Facebook page.