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First Person

Tap happy

Arnold Coombs, 50, a seventh-generation maple sugar farmer, shares why this time of year brings back syrupy sweet memories

(Photograph by Jon Levitt)
By Nancy Heiser
March 6, 2011

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At what age did you start maple sugaring?

I was born in April, during sugaring season. My mom dropped in to see my dad in the sugarhouse on the way home from the hospital. I went to my uncle’s sugarhouse, down the road, starting at about age 4. I’d ride on the tractor, help carry a bucket. He might give me a dime for the help.

Do you feel nostalgic when tapping season comes around?

There is an emotional side. There is a tree still standing outside my dad’s house that my great-great-grandfather tapped. It is 21 feet in circumference.

How many gallons of maple syrup does Coombs Family Farms sell annually?

Approximately a million gallons.

Is collecting sap bad for the maple tree?

No. It’s kind of like giving blood. You don’t want to take too much. We are taking a very small percentage of it.

Maple sugaring has modernized, right? You’re no longer using wooden buckets or steel pails.

We now use the health spout, which is smaller in diameter and exposes less of the wood to infection. The tree heals much faster – in one season. We use vacuum tubing from tree to tree, which saves on labor and helps get more per acre.

You’ve worked to promote maple syrup and grow the industry. Have you ever come up with a product that’s flopped?

Oh, we’ve tried dressings and grilling sauces; they sell OK. We’re trying to show that it’s not just for pancakes. In stores we do a lot of demos, but never on pancakes and waffles.

How do you balance your commitment to organic methods and sustainable forestry with the desire to sell a lot of syrup?

If you have forestland being productive, you can keep it forest. If a farm goes out of business, it gets chopped up for development. In Vermont, the forest is a huge part of the tourism industry. If the farmer can make money on that land, he is still connected to the farm. There is a value in that that is hard to measure. The more maple I can sell, the more we support sustainable forests, the more farmers there are going to be.

I hear you have quite a collection of antique equipment. Any thoughts on what you’ll do with it?

My dad was a great collector. He has about 170 years’ worth of spouts. I’d love to open a museum here in southern Vermont.