During the first blizzard of this season, Ron Kay was walking through the snow. He had work to do, and the looming storm couldn’t keep him from checking his maple syrup taps. Despite it being 18 degrees, Kay, 68, spent five hours outside, alone on a snowy hill scattered with sugar maples.
Kay taps trees throughout the surrounding woods of Maynard, even going into neighbors’ yards to get access to all the sap in town. He runs rubber hosing from tap to tap, and collects all the sap in a stainless steel tank. The tubing crisscrosses his neighbors’ backyards like fallen power lines. They don’t mind; Kay is a central figure of the community. He’s owned Maynard Maple Farms for over 30 years and has been sugaring for even longer. He tapped his first tree 61 years ago.
When he was 7, he and his brother watched a neighbor boy walk into the woods of Lancaster, New Hampshire carrying a glass bottle and wondered what he could have been up to. They followed him – though the kid never knew it – and saw that he was tying bottles to maple taps.
Kay returned home full of questions, and his parents explained that the boy was making maple syrup. Soon Kay took some of his mother’s glass jars into the sugar bush and tried his hand. A week later, the jars froze and the glass cracked. So he switched to tomato paste cans he got from his elementary school cafeteria and tried again.
“We put the pails on a toboggan to get them home,’’ Kay said. “My father helped set up the stove [for boiling], but we didn’t get a lot of help from the adults.’’
Kay doesn’t get any help now either. His sugarhouse is a one-man operation.
He hasn’t always sugared alone. As a kid, he continued to sugar for eight years, up until his freshman year of high school, when he decided he should focus on his studies. He then went to college and joined the Air Force before moving back to Massachusetts.
In the 1970s, Kay got involved in the Christian Service Brigade. His pastor was looking for a “big brother’’ type to mentor a church member. Kay said his father “wasn’t much of a father,’’ so he spent time at his church with kids whose dads weren’t around. He started this before he was married, but continued after he moved to Acton with his wife in 1976. In March of 1982, he took one “little brother’’ to a sugarhouse, he remembers, and that sparked his interest again.
Kay moved to Maynard, into a house surrounded by sugar maples. He built a sugarhouse – a wooden shed with a stainless steel chimney that expels steam, and a “Pure Massachusetts Maple Syrup’’ sign in the window – just a few feet behind his one floor, gray-green home.
“It might be the only sugarhouse [around here] actually built to be a sugarhouse,’’ Kay said. “Most were just converted from barns.’’
Kay sells his sugary goods – all types of syrup in different sizes along with creamy maple candies he packages in partnership with a friend – to a general store about 15 miles away. He’s only a small part of the sugaring world, producing about 130 gallons of syrup each season, but a distinct representative of the mapler culture.
Douglas Whynott, who spent three years traveling around the maple syrup circuit collecting research for his book “The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup – and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest,’’ said that, while there are many large maple syrup operations, the industry is really comprised of small maplers like Kay.
“It’s a lot of small operations that are run by families who are passionate about all of it; the trees, the production, the culture, the product,’’ Whynott said. “The farmer producing [maple syrup] in the mountains of western Maryland is pretty much just like the husband and wife out in the woods in Quebec.’’
Wherever there are sugar maple trees, syrup can me made. Starting in Nova Scotia, these trees populate areas throughout Quebec and Ontario, across the boarder from Maine to Minnesota, and as far south as Maryland and Virginia, where the mountains provide the necessary cold temperatures.
“Sap runs during that really delicate time of the year when the temperatures are above freezing in the day and below freezing at night,’’ said Whynott. “That turning back and forth causes the sap to flow. If the temperature spikes, that sap flow can just end because the tree will shut down.’’
These trees are the same ones responsible for that quintessential foliage that sets New England ablaze with red, orange, and yellow leaves. In the winter, they are bare-branched and tapped with spouts that, to ooze out sap, either rely on gravity or employ a more complex vacuum mechanism. Either way, maplers use “check-valve’’ taps that stop the sap from shrinking back into the tree trunk.
“Like when you cut yourself and start bleeding and heal, the tree will do the same,’’ Kay said. “Bacteria gets in [the sap] and plugs the tap.’’
Kay uses the gravity method, since he doesn’t have too many taps. But Bruce Bascom, the subject of Whynott’s book and one of the leading suppliers of pure maple syrup today, has about 80,000 taps. For major producers like him, new technology helps.
According to the USDA, maple syrup in the United States is a $400 million a year industry. Its production is exclusive to North America, and specifically New England in the United States. Vermont, the state everyone instantly associates with syrup, is responsible for 40 percent of U.S. maple syrup production. New York and Maine each produce about 20 percent, and the rest of the states with sugar maple trees combine to account for the remaining 20 percent of output. In Massachusetts, the world of mapling may be small, but it’s connected to an international infrastructure.
“Bruce was saying that from the beginning,’’ Whynott said. “People just don’t understand the maple syrup industry and how big it is. How important it is too.’’
Recently, there’s been a change in how maple syrup is classified, so that every producer across the United States and Canada follows the same guidelines.
“This is the most significant and comprehensive change [in the maple syrup industry],’’ said Dave Chapeskie, Executive Director of the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) headquartered in Ontario, Canada.
The new grading system was decided by the institute’s board of directors, a group of prominent maple producers from the U.S. and Canada, and has been in the works since 2002.
Kay found out about these changes when he attended a Mass Maple meeting, where the association distributed an info card clarifying the categories and provided discounts on new testing equipment and labels so as to ease the transition.
“The syrup that is for sale is still the great, local product that everyone loves, and the grading system change has given producers an opportunity to offer more education about why there are different colors and flavors to this all natural product,’’ Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, said.
There are different colors and flavors because of the sugar content in the sap.
“The changes that the trees go through as they thaw, and the change in the temperature, make syrup darken as the season progresses,’’ Pitcoff said. “Light syrup is made early in the season.’’
Now, instead of the vague A and B grades, syrup labels will mention color and flavor with designations like “golden color, delicate taste’’ and “dark color, robust taste.’’ Chapeskie hopes this will help customers to purchase exactly the syrup they like, but says it took a lot of effort on the part of maple producers.
“We spent a lot of time building a consensus among maple producers and packers in the US and Canada. [This] communication and collaboration among US and Canadian industry leaders is of paramount importance,’’ Chapeskie said. But of course, he added, there were some producers who opposed the changes.
When Whynott was writing about Bascom, he accompanied the maple syrup mogul on trips to Canada to meet with buyers. Whynott remembered a moment of strange realization about how important maple syrup is to those in the industry.
“Up in Quebec, I was with a buyer [for Bascom] and he was buying about 3 million pounds of syrup a year,’’ Whynott said. “He pointed out to the forest and said to me, ‘All of those forests are tapped for maple syrup, all of them.’ It was a vast expanse.’’
Arnold Coombs, who owns Coombs Family Farm in Brattleboro, Vermont, has worked with Bascom, and supports the changes.
“I’ve talked to quite a few farmers who are against it, but some people just don’t like change,’’ said Coombs. “I’ve been a mapler my whole life and the number one question I get asked is ‘What’s the difference in the grades?’ Now, consumers can answer that themselves because the flavors are described.’’
Coombs isn’t exaggerating about spending his whole life in the world of maple syrup. After he was born, his mother stopped by their family’s sugarhouse on the way home from the hospital so she could introduce her husband to his newborn son.
Coombs is now the chairman of the Vermont Maple Industry Council and describes himself as a “champion for small family farms.’’ He also still works closely with Bascom Farms, an institution that does not fit the definition of “small.’’
In his book, Whynott touched on how 2012 was one of the worst syrup seasons so far, with 15,000 warm temperature records broken throughout the U.S. in March. This year, all the snow is helping to ensure plenty of syrup.
“More snow is more dependable, making sure you have a good sugar season,’’ Kay said. “The snow is a constant source of moisture [for the trees] so you don’t have to worry if it’ll rain or not. And most importantly, it keeps it cold at night.’’
That’s good news for Lynne Wood, the buyer for the Harvard General Store 15 miles down the road from Maynard Maple Farms that carries Kay’s maple products.
“Ron is a dedicated man, clearly passionate about what he is doing,’’ Wood said.
That passion has been rooted in him since he first started tapping trees. While walking through the snow after checking on his taps, Kay remembered a moment from his childhood.
“I was in fifth grade, the last subject of the day, just staring out the window,’’ Kay said. “I was looking out and just thinking, ‘Soon, I can go collect the sap.’’’