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Another Sweet Year on the NMH Farm

Another Sweet Year on the NMH Farm
sugarshack, NMH, sugarhouse, boarding school, small farm,

Maple sugaring is a conspicuous harbinger of early spring in northern New England. On the NMH campus, the silver buckets and tubing systems that are tools of the trade appear sometime between late February and early March.  

Sugaring has been an integral part of the school’s farm program since 1978, when students and farmers produced eight gallons during the inaugural season. Now, with more students involved and a powerful reverse-osmosis filtration machine in the sugarhouse, a typical season can produce hundreds of gallons of the delicious amber syrup. 

While some lucky students participate in sugaring through classwork, it’s mainly workjob students who help farmers Nancy Hanson and Emma Lindale ’17 get the job done in the prime sugaring weeks. Additionally, over spring break, day students can sign up for a five-day stretch of seven-hour shifts working on the farm. 

Student pulls filters from the maple syrup evaporative process

In the second week of this year’s break, five students took advantage of the opportunity to learn about sugaring. Over the course of the week, the group worked together cleaning and prepping equipment, emptying buckets and vats filled with gallons of sap, and overseeing the filtering and evaporation process in the sugarhouse. 

Student pouring maple sap into a larger bucket in the woods

Hanson, the farm director, spent part of her days driving students to bucket stops. On one trip, she stopped her truck on the side of the road to show students how to differentiate between a sugar maple and a red maple. “Branches on the sugar maple are opposite of one another. Oaks, on the other hand, alternate,” she explained while holding a branch. She showed the students the pointy bud and explained that red maples have fatter buds that show up early. “You can tap the sugar maples when they are about as wide as a five-gallon bucket,” she said.

This was the second year that Anthony McNamara ’26 participated in the sugaring over spring break. He said he loves the process. “Seeing the sap we took from trees at the beginning of the week turn into syrup that other people can enjoy is just so rewarding,” he said. “I was also able to learn skills across the farm while we weren’t sugaring. Even though we didn’t do as much sugaring this year as last year due to the weather, it was still fun.” 

Bottles of maple syrup line the shelves on the sugar shack

Seasonal syrup yields have been on the decline, Hanson and Lindale report. A decade ago, Lindale said, up to 1,000 gallons were produced. Last year yielded 200 – this year, just 95. It’s a symptom of climate change that students are witnessing first-person, Hanson said. “Low-sugar contents in the sap and warm temps early meant that we made half the normal amount of syrup. I have been talking with other sugarmakers and they have had the same experience,” she said. 

Lily Adams ’27 was surprised that it took so much sap to create the syrup. (It takes roughly 40 gallons to produce just one gallon of syrup.”) She looks forward to using the skills that she learned again, such as measuring sugar density and cleaning a filter. “I feel like I have a solid base,” she said. “My Nana is friends with a guy that makes maple syrup,” she said. “It'd be fun to help out since I already kind of know the process now.” 

For Hanson, the experience of watching the students take part in some downtime was satisfying. “One fun detail for me but maybe not for them: We don't allow students to have their phones when working on the farm, because we want them to pay attention to the tasks at hand,” she said. “One day the students were sitting around the evaporator and periodically stoking the fire. We had a group of teenagers sitting around in a circle, playing word games with each other, not a phone in sight. A small thing, maybe, but oh so rare these days.”

Note: Visit our farm store to order your own NMH syrup.

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