Conway --The first week of March, steam from Boyden Brothers' Sugar House billowed into the raw air outside. The steam, vented from Howard Boyden's two sizable sap evaporators, signaled the approach of spring in this rural town.
Just as important, perhaps, the steam also signaled Tom McCrumm, another maple-syrup maker who lives a dozen miles north in Ashfield, that he should brace for his own sap run.
''My wife drives by Boyden's on the way to and from work every day, and she tells me when he starts boiling. Then I know I have about a week to get ready," says McCrumm. Because Ashfield lies at a slightly higher elevation than Conway, his season lags about a week behind Boyden's. Conway and Ashfield, at the western edge of the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, are in the heart of the Bay State's maple belt.
Though long overshadowed by Vermont's famous sugarbush, Massachusetts boasts a wide swath of maple orchards and more than 100 sugar houses, where the likes of Boyden and McCrumm perform their seasonal sprint, usually for the six weeks between mid-February and early April. Most of the state's sugar houses lie in the hilly terrain west of the Quabbin Reservoir, clustering in a thick band west of Interstate 91 and north of the Massachusetts Turnpike. McCrumm, also coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, says that despite producing only a tenth of Vermont's syrup output, the Bay State has a higher percentage of sugar houses open to the public than its northerly neighbor.
''Vermont is expert at marketing maple syrup, but Massachusetts has cashed in on maple-syrup tourism, probably because more of the population here resides within a hundred miles of the maple-producing region," McCrumm says.
Here, a number of sugar-house restaurants open for about six weekends each season, typically serving breakfast and lunch with maple doughnuts to full-bore pancake breakfasts. (''I call it the anti-Atkins diet," says McCrumm, who runs one of the restaurants.)
The fruits of this short, intense season bring in an impressive amount of cash. Last year's maple syrup crop in Massachusetts totaled 35,000 gallons, which fetched $1.8 million, ''an OK year," according to McCrumm. (By contrast, Vermont yielded 430,000 gallons and reaped $13.3 million last year.) Considering the 18-hour days required to produce syrup, McCrumm says the money isn't as good as it seems.
When dairy farming still ruled the region, sugaring was part of the annual farming cycle, coming in the mushy-snow and early-mud seasons, before farmers can do much else outdoors. Maple syrup also made for a quick-turnaround cash crop to pay for a new tractor or seed for the busy seasons ahead. Farmers sold syrup in 30-gallon drums to wholesalers, who bottled it and sold to retailers.
As the profit margin in small farms dwindled in the second half of the 20th century, however, most farmers cut out the wholesalers and opened their doors to passersby.
''I can't think of any producer of syrup here in Massachusetts today who sells the majority of their product in bulk," McCrumm says. Which is not to say maple syrup producers are getting rich, exactly. ''One of our many jokes is that we don't do it for money, we do it for love, because our hourly wages wouldn't survive close scrutiny." For McCrumm, that love is linked to the alchemy of turning a thin, near-colorless liquid into a golden syrup.
''It's magic," he says. ''It's truly amazing, getting something that good out of a tree."
Jane Roy Brown is a writer in Western Massachusetts.