The sap also rises at Keith Armstrong’s Pownal Farm

Evan feeding the fire of the maple syrup evaporator
Evan loading the fire. Photo credit: Phil Holland

February 28, 2023

“I’ve been knocked down before. I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to get back up and make it better.’”

Two years ago, when a freak July fire, probably caused by lightning, consumed the sugarhouse and the 500 gallons of maple syrup that Keith Armstrong, then 78, was storing there, it was a hard blow to the family maple operation. Cut to 2023, and the now octogenarian (but strangely youthful) Armstrong hops on his ATV and heads into the sugarbush, along with other family members, to tap trees for another year.

Keith Armstrong behind the wheel of his ATV.
Keith Armstrong in his sugarbush. Photo credit: Phil Holland

The new sugarhouse, built from boards milled from pines on the property and boasting a new and more efficient evaporator, is ready to receive sap from Armstrong’s more than 3000 taps for the second time.

The sap flows through a maze of plastic tubing strung on the steep slopes of Armstrong’s 270 acres to be boiled down into sweet, aromatic syrup in the gleaming pans. About 40 gallons of sap must be evaporated to leave one gallon of the precious maple essence.

Connor tapping a maple tree in late winter.
Connor tapping a maple tree in late winter. Photo credit: Phil Holland

A reverse-osmosis device speeds the process along, but the heat for boiling comes from the seasoned hardwood and pine that disappears into the firebox by the cord every spring.

Armstrong’s farm, located on Route 7 a few miles south of Bennington is well known to visitors and locals alike for its creative pumpkin displays in foliage season.

The sugarhouse stands well back in the woods, where clouds of steam can be seen rising through the trees in March and, increasingly, February, as the climate warms. Visitors are welcome to walk up to purchase syrup; the roadside stand opens in July.

The Armstrong Sugarhouse with steam pouring out.
The Armstrong sugarhouse. Photo credit: Phil Holland

Armstrong says that it was after conferring with his grandsons Connor and Evan McCart and other relations that he decided to rebuild. They will be the fourth generation to make syrup on a farm that has been in the family since 1868, and they already do most of the work. “Sugaring’s in our blood, I guess. We started with a few buckets in the backyard as kids, and now we do this,“ says Connor as he nimbly fits a new spout into a freshly drilled hole and connects it to a 3/16” tube.

The vertical drop of the tubing creates its own vacuum and draws sap from the trees down hundreds of feet to the sugarhouse below. Each tree has plenty of sap left over for itself; the Armstrongs tap conservatively so as not to stress their trees. 

Stop in during the month of March and see the sugarhouse in action, above all on Vermont’s two Spring Maple Open House Weekends, March 25-26 and (if the season isn’t finished in southern Vermont) April 1-2.

Sugarmakers in every town in Bennington County will be boiling sap and welcoming visitors during those heady end-of-winter days. They depend on direct-to-consumer sales to turn a profit, so don’t miss a chance to take home a good supply of fresh Vermont Maple ’23 and support a family farm. Details at Bennington County Sugarmakers’ Association.

A group of sugar makers at Armstrong Farm in Vermont.
Phil, Connor, Evan, Karen, Keith, and Katie. Photo credit: Phil Holland

One last word for maple connoisseurs, who know that there is terroir in syrup just as there is in wine. The rocks of the Taconic range, which extends from the Berkshires up the western side of the Valley of Vermont, are endowed with lime and magnesium in amounts that make for especially flavorful syrup.

The Armstrong maples grow right on a Taconic ridge. Taste for yourself!

Pownal resident Phil Holland writes a monthly post for Vermont Begins Here.