The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest

  • Douglas Whynott
  • Da Capo Press
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
  • July 23, 2014

The story of the maple syrup industry told within the boundaries of one year, one harvest, and one family.

In 1944, Dartmouth College artist-in-residence Paul Sample painted an iconic scene of maple trees tapped with hanging buckets, a man shouldering two sap pails from a wooden yoke, and a team of horses hitched to a sled, waiting patiently by the sugarhouse door. There’s a curl of steam and smoke rising from the sugarhouse, and a vista that fades away to the snow-covered hillside beyond.

It’s a classic New England visual, and it’s what most of us think of when we think about maple syrup. If you’re of a certain age, it’s exactly what you think, because Sample’s painting was reproduced on the sides of maple syrup containers for years on end, back when that syrup came in tin cans with sticky lids.

We cling to this image because we are encouraged to believe it still exists. Visit northern New England when the sap is flowing and you’re sure to see a family run sugarhouse billowing steam, the operators offering maple sugaring tours and sample wares. It’s a version of the maple syrup story that sells like the hotcakes that soak up that syrup. It’s also a far cry from the multinational operations that put maple syrup on the grocery store shelves today. Plastic tubing and vacuum systems and reverse osmosis, it turns out, are good for business, but neither is terribly quaint, nor conducive to tour-bus stops.

Author Douglas Whynott’s The Sugar Season is a remarkable ode to the evolution of the maple sugar industry, from its humble beginnings to today’s multibillion-dollar foothold in the world economy. It’s a peek behind the curtain to the world of maple sugaring that exists beyond the rustic facade. Whynott sets his illuminating tale within the framework of one year, one harvest, and one family’s syrup business. From there, he chronicles the history, the technological advances, and the effects that climate change will surely have on this biosphere-sensitive product. He also introduces his readers to a fascinating array of individuals, all of whom depend upon the bounty of the sugar maples for their livelihood.

Starting with the curiously warm weather and weirdly early sap run of January 2012, Whynott launches his narrative just as the sugar maples are about to stir. He introduces us to Bruce Bascom, the family member currently in charge of an enterprise his ancestors first dabbled in before the Civil War. He grew up with maple sap in his blood, working alongside his father, Ken, who by all accounts was a demanding individual, as imperious and stoic as the New Hampshire winters were dark and frigid. The son learned the business at his father’s knee, putting in long, hard hours for little pay and no thanks. A Bascom family edict imparted to all was that hard work is expected, and a good sugar season (marked in copiously kept records in the Bascom Maple Farms’ offices) was its own reward.

Bruce is a one-man catalyst bent on propelling the Bascom operation into the big time. Despite his mother’s entreaties to find work elsewhere and his father’s seeming disinterest in his future plans, Bruce returned from college to the family operation with a degree in business and a particular interest in entrepreneurial management. When asked why he chose to come back to work with his father, Bruce simply replied, “To prove I could do better.”

What ensued were years of backbreaking work punctuated by power struggles between two strong-willed individuals: the son intent on growing the business as quickly as possible and the father taken aback by his son’s willingness to bet the farm on future revenue, technological improvements, and currency fluctuations.

Once the dust had settled on the father-son imbroglios, “better” could not begin to describe the advances made in the running of the Bascom family enterprise under Bruce’s stewardship. As one of the largest independent maple syrup wholesalers in America, as well as the country’s largest distributor of sugaring equipment to maple farmers and sugar houses, Bascom Maple Farms stands as as a diversified major player, with revenue and reserves far beyond Ken’s wildest dreams. Indeed, as the sugar season of 2012 ends, the future looks bright.

And yet, as Bruce himself notes, “The future is my biggest problem.” Between his lack of a succession plan for the family business, global climate change concerns, the havoc inflicted by the onslaught of Asian long-horned beetles moving ever northward, and the whims of the worldwide market, Bascom understands that there’s no obvious road map to what lies ahead. If anything, the past is prologue, and will usher in whatever new technologies deliver, combined with whatever new environmental changes may lie around the bend, to the next sap run and beyond.

Whynott provides a compelling overview into an industry entering the 21st century with head-spinning technological advances. The author clearly set out to tell a story with a simple premise — one maple syrup operation, one sugaring season — which, in the end, the book’s covers could barely contain. Truly, there were too many entertaining backstories, too many characters and operations to visit, and too many compelling facts to leave out. As I read along, I wished fervently that Whynott had provided an index, so I could revisit some of his more colorful subjects. I’d also have given anything for a Bascom family tree, as the cousins and generations started melding into one.

In another writer’s hands, this tale might have been divided in two — the Shakespearean drama that lies completely within the Bascom family’s story, and the business school teaching case, which would make good use of the abundant data. Whynott’s picture of the whole historic sweep of the maple industry is a tribute to his committed effort. As a labor of love, Whynott’s effort shines through, even if the statistics occasionally bog down this complicated story.

Since The Sugar Season’s publication, there have been reports of further remarkable breakthroughs in maple production methods, utilizing young saplings in place of mature trees and improved vacuum systems. Chatter around the maple business is that this could be a game-changing technology, capable of increasing per-acre maple syrup production tenfold.

Whether this new technology will defend the industry from climate change threats and rising land costs, or overwhelm the industry with newcomer producers outside the “maple belt” of northern New England and Canada, remains to be seen. A curious unintended consequence will likely be the end of glades of sugar maple trees as we know them, or wish them to be — the final blow to the picture we hang on to in our imaginations. Sample’s nostalgic image lives on, but the maple sugar world keeps changing.

H. Macomber is a writer in Cambridge, Mass., who brings her own pure maple
syrup to pancake restaurants that can’t be relied upon to provide the real

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