The plumes of sweet-smelling smoke rising out of the Vermont woods this spring signal more than just the annual rite of "maple sugaring" -- this season they're sending out the sweet scent of success.
"We haven't seen a season like this in 10, 15, 20 years," reports David Newton, Rutland County extension agent. He reflects the mood of the state's 2, 000 sugarmakers who, working over evaporater vats in steamy sugarhouses, are enjoying the unusual combination of high quality, quantity, and sugar content in this year's sap.
Tapping started early with February's warm spell. Some farmers reported larger harvests in the first two weeks this year than in all of last year's March and April season, says Mr. Newton.
The recent combination of warm days, subfreezing nights, and overcast skies has produced the pressure within the maple trees for which sugar farmers wait all winter. Sap is running so heavily, say farmers, that they expect to easily surpass the 15-year-old crop record of 465,000 gallons.
Sugar content in the sap is at "unheard" of levels, reports Everett Willard of the Vermont Department of Agriculture. Normally, raw sap contains 2 to 2 1/2 percent sugar, explains Mr. Willard.
He says one farmer reported sugar levels of 5 percent in his maple orchard this season. The higher the sugar content, the less sap it takes to make syrup. Generally, a sugarmaker must evaporate off 35 to 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
While the quantity and sugar content of this year's harvest are breaking records, what has sugarmakers -- mostly small, family operators -- grinning is the quality of syrup.
Vermonters are sugar connoiseurs, with a taste for maple in their breeding since colonial times. They prefer the fancy grade --a light-colored syrup with a delicate maple flavor -- rather than the darker, heavier-tasting grades.
The clear, fancy-grade syrup, which is cooked and whipped into a number of New England epicurean delights like sugar cakes, maple cream, or maple fudge, fetches prices as high as $28 a gallon. (In an average year, a 2,000-tap operator could expect to get one quart of syrup per tap, per season. This year that yield could double.)
"It's a farmer's dream . . . . How much 'fancy' he can make? But it's kind of like the golden touch because, oddly enough, the buying public prefers the middle grade [darker syrup]. You might even have some customers disappointed," explains Wilson Clark, president of the Vermont Sugar Makers' Association.
Alleen Eurich agrees. She smiles as she looks through a jar of this year's clear fancy crop. "It makes us feel so good, and we work so hard to get this, and then they come and ask for B grade," says Mrs. Eurich, who sells her husband's syrup from the kitchen door of their Waitsfield farmhouse.
Willard says the public palate has been tainted by store-bought syrups. Many of the name-brand products contain less than 3 percent real maple syrup, he sniffs, adding that he can detect imitation maple flavor by its odor alone.
But the taste for pure maple products --no matter what the grade -- doesn't stop at the farmhouse stoop where most of Vermont's product hits the marketplace. Mail-order business is big, and the Eurich family is sending increasing amounts of their product to out-of-state customers.
This bountiful season is bound to increase the growth of the maple industry which, until 10 years ago, had been in danger of extinction, says Willard. Maple syrup, the No. 1 sweetener up until the late 1800s, was undercut by cheaper cane sugar, and Vermont agriculture shifted to more profitable dairy farming. A 1938 hurricane dealt the final blow, destroying many of New England's maple trees.
Vermont's maple industry felt a resurgence in the 1970s with the "back-to-the-land movement" and the interest in "natural foods," explains Newton. He notes that Vermonters are tapping twice the number of trees they did 10 years ago.
With the success of this year's crop, more tapping is likely. Says one sugar farmer: "You don't get rich in this business, but when you see a season like this year's , it sure makes a guy glad he's in the sugar business."