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More Than Maple Farmers

My neighbors, Brooks McCutchen and Janis Steele, are very models of the modern maple sugarers.  When I went to visit their sugarhouse I saw the familiar steam billowing from the roof, but as I got closer I saw modern elements.

Inside the sugarhouse is a huge steamy stainless steel evaporator but there is no fire in sight. This operation is run mostly by solar power.

Solar power is not the only modern element. McCutchen and Steele use a reverse osmosis technique that removes most of the water from the maple sap before it goes into the evaporator. Reverse osmosis means the sap takes only about 45 minutes to emerge from the evaporator; then it is drawn off into stainless kegs. This is called small batch sugaring, and each batch will be slightly different in color and taste. Which brings us to the modern marketing of Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple Syrup.

We live in a rural area, so most of us are familiar with how difficult it is for small farmers to make a fair wage. The rise of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, farm stands, and farmers’ markets are some of the ways local farmers have found to make a more secure living. After doing some wholesale selling, McCutchen and Steele decided to do only direct sales. You can buy their syrup at their Heath farmstand on Route 8A, at any of the dozen or craft shows they attend up and down the eastern seaboard, or buy mailorder through their website,

Berkshire Sweet Gold farmstand

Besides using new technologies and marketing strategies, McCutchen and Steele take an innovative approach to working on their farm. They consider themselves carbon farmers, as well as maple farmers. They manage their mixed woodland, which includes the sugarbush, to sequester carbon.

As we talked they reminded me that at the turn of the 20th century 80% of Heath was open farmland and the soil was becoming depleted. There are not many open fields anymore but McCutchen explained that it is the mixed forests that have grown up that are rebuilding the soil, putting carbon back into the soil. “Carbon is the core for providing the structure of healthy soil,” he said.

Knowing that both McCutchen and Steele had professional careers as a psychologist and anthopologist respectivley before they became farmers of any sort, I asked them how they came to this new career.

McCutchen said it was not such a leap as I might have imagined. He was 13 when he came to Heath with his parents Leighton and Martha McCutchen. He attended Mohawk for a short period but then chose to finish high school by correspondence, and went to work at the same time for farmers in the town. “Elmer Sherman made maple syrup as a seasonal product on his farm. He was very fussy about doing things right,” McCutchen said.

After graduation he attended The College of the Atlantic; that is where he and Steele met, both majoring in Human Ecology. “Psychology can be too much in the head,” McCutchen said, “but anthropology is based on land, on language and communication. It is a more natural progression.”

Steele said that as a Montreal native, she grew up where all the kids went sugaring in season. “Ninety percent of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada so now when we bring our syrup up to my family we are stopped at the border and everyone laughs that we would bring syrup into the country,” she said.

“I haven’t really left anthropology. I’ve just shifted my topical focus. I’m still a member of the American Anthropological Association and have a sub-group membership in Culture and Agriculture.  This June Brooks and I are giving a paper on Variance Agriculture and the Ecosystem Marketplace at an Agriculture Food and Human Values Society conference,” Steele said.

She explained that variance agriculture and marketing, emphasize the particular variety of a crop. Those of us who garden certainly have our favorite varieties of lettuce, tomato, and squash and can understand this concept, as can those who drink specialty wines and liquors.  McCutchen and Steele believe that giving information about variety is another element that small farmers can use in their marketing for greater profit – enough to make a fair wage.

Steel and McCutchen also remind, and educate people, that maple syrup can be used for more than pancakes. Going beyond pancakes, McCutchen  says small amounts of maple syrup can be used in cooking, not as a sweetener, but to help balance flavors. The grading system of A, B, and C is no longer used; the color of the syrup is an indicator of intensity of flavor. He said that if you have a lemon based sauce or marinade a bit of light amber syrup can help achieve that balance; if it is balsamic vinegar a darker syrup; and if it is soysauce based a black amber syrup (which is not really black) can be used. You will find many excellent recipes on their website and at the farm stand. I am going to try the sautéed green beans and garlic tossed with a bit of Berkshire Sweet Gold and a few dried cranberries.

I think small family farms are still one of our American ideals. The making of Berkshire Sweet Gold maple syrup supports a family (children and grandparents work as well), supports the community economy, maintains the rural landscape we all love, and protects our environment.  ###

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