by Anna Soref, Calmful Living Editor
It’s mid-March and the plowed snow flanks the sides of the narrow road I’m driving through the Vermont woods. I pass intermittent small log cabins, white smoke curling out of the chimneys. The scene is something out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book—which is where I first learned about what I am here to do: tap a maple tree for syrup.
I’m on a press trip sponsored by Bascom Family Farms, a maple syrup company. Over the next two days we’re going to learn all about maple syrup, from the trees that produce the sweet sap to how it’s bottled. We’ll also learn the insider info like how to make maple snow. I’m expecting to come away from this trip with a hefty dose of maple syrup knowledge. And I do. But I also leave with something I didn’t expect—a friendship with Arnold Coombs.
Coombs is our host and a maple syrup aficionado and traditionalist. He devotes his life to promoting and securing the time-honored traditions of producing maple syrup, where the trees are grown and treated with respect and produce what is now called organic maple syrup. Many maple farmers have Coombs to thank for their livelihoods. And many of us who pour organic maple syrup onto our pancakes have him to thank for keeping this North American tradition alive.
Maple syrup, like pretty much all things that come from nature, has been put through the modernization mill from farmer to seller. Maple trees are tapped too aggressively to get more sap, it’s diluted with fillers, and often there’s not even any actual syrup in your syrup. Pick up a bottle of Aunt Jemima and look at the ingredients; it’s all high-fructose corn syrup and flavorings.
But Coombs is doing everything he can to keep the traditional maple syrup production and manufacture alive.
Growing Up Maple
We’re all gathered around a great big maple with a wide, proud trunk. When Coombs asks for volunteers to tap it, my hand goes up. I feel guilty gently hammering the old-fashioned metal tap into its thick bark. I’m reassured it’s not damaging the tree. We hang the galvanized- metal bucket off the tap. Once the springtime temperature rises, the sap will flow and fill the bucket, I’m told.
While Arnold Coombs probably doesn’t have maple syrup running through his veins instead of blood, he just might possibly have some syrup DNA somewhere in those cells.
His family began making maple syrup in 1843. Like most farmers back then, they made it for their own use and sold whatever surplus they might have. They must have been good at it; by the 1950s it was his grandparents’ livelihood.
The business was passed down to Coombs’ parents. “My dad was the largest producer in the industry back in the mid-1960s. I was born during sugaring season [when the sap is boiled down into sugar], and on the way home from the hospital my mom stopped by the sugarhouse where my dad was boiling down sap. I was at the sugarhouse before I got home to my regular house. It was just always a part of my life.”
When Coombs and his three siblings were old enough, each night after dinner they helped load that day’s syrup harvest onto the truck for delivery. “We would load up case after case every night; it was one of those rituals and I didn’t really think much of it. We’d race to get it done as fast as we could so we could go do something else,” he muses.
Summertime was spent doing more of the same, plus manning the shop and making maple candy. Sometimes Coombs and a brother would be allowed to go on a short delivery trip that might include a night at a motel. “Occasionally there’d be a pool and a color TV, and that was a big deal back in the 1970s,” Coombs recalls. “It didn’t seem laborious or anything; it didn’t feel like child labor: it’s what kept me out of trouble.”
And of course there was a jug of maple syrup on the table at all times. “You just had it all the time. It’s one of the things that I still use almost every day on something. I use it on my yogurt for breakfast, and I’ll put it on salmon for a glaze.
“So maple syrup put us in the middle class. From my perspective I had a great childhood. It’s not like we had a lot of extras, but we had what we needed.”
Choosing the Family Business
As we stuff delicious maple syrup candy into our mouths at one of our stops, I consider what a life dedicated to maple syrup would be like: Countless evenings spent around the hearth, days tromping through snow to check the tubing and spouts, and lots and lots of pancakes. Maybe I’m romanticizing it; still, as I suck on another piece of the lightly caramel-flavored candy, I think it sounds pretty good.
Upon graduation, Coombs left for college to learn about a world outside of maple syrup. “People would say to me, ‘You don’t have to go to college. Why don’t you just stay here and take care of your dad’s business?’ But I was thinking, ‘I have to learn more; I’ve got to figure out what’s going on here.’”
After college and working various jobs in sales and marketing, Coombs was asked by his dad if he’d come back and join the business. “He didn’t let on as to how bad everything had gotten,” Coombs continues. “The company was close to being foreclosed on when I got there because a competitor had burned him on a major contract and he had a handshake deal which should have been in writing. That was kind of how he was—a handshake was as good as a signature.”
Coombs managed to help turn the business around to profit again, although his parents wound up selling to a New York City investment banker to secure their retirement. He stayed with the company under its new owners but then left in the mid-nineties to start Coombs Family Farms.
Why stay in the maple business? “I really like the product and the industry; there are great people in it, like the farmers—the stewards of the land. And then there are the trees,” Coombs reflects. “[pullquote]The fact that you are dealing with a tree that is thirty or forty years old before you even start tapping it is amazing. There is a tree that I tap that my great-great-grandfather tapped in the 1800s[/pullquote].”
When an opportunity to sell Coombs Family Farms to the larger syrup company Bascom Family Farms came along and would allow Coombs to continue running his business as the organic division, he accepted. “It gave us security at that point, which we wanted.”
The inn where we stay during the maple trip is straight out of the pages of a New England calendar. Our first night we head to the dining room for dinner. Menus on the table announce a five-course meal, each somehow incorporating maple syrup. We begin the libations with maple mojitos, and hours later we’re finishing off with maple-syrup-sweetened cake—all made with certified organic maple syrup.
A surprising number of rules differentiate certified organic maple syrup from conventional. “It starts with having a written forest management plan that shows you are practicing sustainable forestry and then making sure you follow it,” Coombs explains.
“Then, it’s how you are tapping the trees: Are you overtapping? Are you going too far into the tree?” Coombs inserts a maximum of two taps into each tree, which he says does no harm.
Today, farmers use a system of plastic tubing that runs between the spouts of the trees into a central holding tank. It saves time and requires less driving for sap collection. For organic syrup, the tubing cannot be cleaned with harsh chemicals. Coombs doesn’t apply chemicals on his own operation—which uses 450 miles of tubing in the woods—even those approved for organic syrup harvest. “We don’t find they’re all that effective; so we use pulsating air and water, and that cleans it as good as anything else.”
During the sugaring, or boiling down, of the sap, conventional syrup farmers may use an animal byproduct to reduce foam that gathers on the hot sap, whereas organic farmers use an organic plant-based defoamer. Additionally, to produce certified organic maple syrup, the trees must be a defined distance from roads (if salt is applied) and other crops that might be sprayed with pesticides, to avoid runoff and drift, according to Coombs.
Helping Small Farmers
Out of the windows of our tour bus that snakes through the skinny country roads, we spot tiny wooden sugar shacks back in the trees. Some have smoke coming out of the chimney, meaning they are boiling down the sap, or sugaring.
Bascom Family Farms gets its syrup from about three thousand area farmers. “There are a lot of people who have full-time jobs but they’ve got a piece of land and they do it as a hobby. However, often the maple syrup bug kicks in and soon they are tapping more and more trees,” says Coombs.
He loves to help farmers get established in the syrup business. “Some are just what we call backyard sugar makers, and they have ten trees out back and they want to tap them. So we help these people get supplies and show them how to do it. They often get into it and sell the syrup at the farmers’ market. More than once we’ve seen a small farm grow to where they acquire hundreds of trees, and then they supply syrup to us.
“On the first weekend of May we have an open house where farmers are invited in, and we have seminars teaching them how to do it the right way. It’s rewarding to be their teacher; you can see the enthusiasm in their eyes as they catch the bug.
“There are people from all walks of life getting into maple,” Coombs relates. “They like the idea of it—giving back to the land and that it’s a very sustainable product; yet you don’t have to be there constantly as you do with cows, for example.”
Of course, there are also the farmers who make their livelihoods from maple syrup. “As dairy and vegetable farming has become increasingly difficult, more farmers are getting into maple syrup. I know a number of farmers who have sold off their entire fields, and they are wholly committed to maple. A friend of mine sold off two hundred cows eight or nine years ago and is now tapping around seventy-five thousand trees, and that’s what he does.”
Making Maple Global
One stop on our maple trip finds us sitting around a table with the promise of fresh maple snow. I’m thinking, “Hmm, pouring maple syrup onto snow could be okay; they did it in the Little House books.” We’re served bowls of fluffy snow, dark with maple syrup. But it’s not runny syrup; it’s been boiled down until it hardens a bit to form a sort of caramel on the snow. And it’s d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s.
These days Coombs spends a lot of his time traveling the world, turning people on to maple syrup. “I was in China last year and they had very little knowledge concerning it, but it was fun teaching them about maple syrup. A lot of people just don’t get it. You’d be surprised at how many people think it’s made from grinding up leaves. You have to explain repeatedly that ‘yup, it’s just made from the sap in a tree.’” In large part due to Coombs’ educational touring, the company now sells a good deal of syrup in Germany and England and a total of thirty-three countries in all.
In the United States, consumers are turning to maple syrup as an alternative to cane sugar and are using it now more than ever in savory dishes like marinades. “We have some mixologists at bars who use our syrup in cocktails,” Coombs notes. “The more that we can get the word out about how it’s made, the purity of it and all the antioxidants that are in it, the more popular it will become.”
Maple syrup is healthier than most people realize, Coombs indicates as we sit on the bus, driving to our next stop. He tells us about a researcher at the University of Rhode Island who found more than twenty compounds in pure maple syrup that contribute to better health, including sev-
eral newly identified antioxidant compounds that are reported to have anticancer, antibacterial and antidiabetic properties. A quarter-cup serving of maple syrup contains more calcium than the same amount of milk and more potassium than a banana. Who knew?
Just like Arnold, his two sons grew up surrounded by the maple business. “It was different though: they didn’t drive places with me to sell it; I flew places to sell it. But we did tap trees up and down the road and boil it over fire, and they understand that part. One son left for three years and went to Colorado and has returned and is running our candy production facility. It’s kind of nice to see that my son has his own passion for it.”
When asked what his future plans are, Coombs says he can’t see too far beyond what he’s doing now—turning the world on to real maple syrup that’s made using traditional methods. The idea of a maple syrup museum isn’t out of the question, however. “I have all of my dad’s collection of antique syrup equipment. It would be nice to do a museum at some point. Yes, it would be nice to do that at some point.”
As I once again navigate the winding roads through Vermont, this time to the airport, I have a deeper sense of appreciation for maple syrup and am anxious to dabble with it in recipes. Yet mostly I feel honored to have met a man like Arnold Coombs, who is keeping alive the old ways of doing something. Sure, he could make more money churning out more sap from the trees. For him, though, it’s about enjoying the pace and process of doing it how nature intended while supporting farmers and the planet along the way. I’ll certainly never buy another bottle of anything but pure maple syrup. Thanks, Arnold.
For more, see www.coombsfamilyfarms.com.