Sweet Science!

Marc McKee at Vershire's educational North Road Sugar Works

Maple Sugaring & Climate Change Converge in Vershire

Once again a pioneer in combining innovative environmental education with preserving traditional culture, skills and landscapes, Vershire now has our own non-profit educational sugar house dedicated to greater awareness of the effects of climate change on maple sugaring in Vermont. Marc McKee is creating North Road Sugar Works to take on the multiple, and sometimes controversial, aspects of that challenge.

From the organization’s website: “North Road Sugar Works​ is a 501(c)(3) non profit organization advancing an analysis and understanding of future climatic impact on sugar maple trees. Our focus will be on community based environmental education with a definite emphasis on the sweet science of making maple sugar.”

The  website offers this background on its origins. “Marc McKee has been devoted to the practice of maple sugaring since he moved to Vermont in 1975. After some years of tapping his own maples, he developed and managed the Mountain School sugarbush in Vershire, Vermont. From 1987 to 2012, with the help of forty-five enthusiastic sixteen-year-olds, as well as some interested, equally willing faculty, every sugaring season he boiled sap from about 800 buckets. Over that twenty-five-year period, he witnessed changes in the climate that he does not fully understand, and he hopes will not result in a Vermont without maple trees. This project is his response to those concerns.”

About forty people gathered in the Vershire Town Center for the third Annual Pancake Supper on March 25, featuring, of course, local maple syrup. Nancy Patch, a Franklin County forester, spoke after the meal. Marc explained, “The program was directed at the impact of climate change on sugar maples, and Nancy said there certainly will be an impact at some time in the future. Thanks to the Dartmouth Sugar Makers for being so helpful and thanks to VerShare for giving them a place to sleep. A great evening, with plenty of food, and plenty of concerned citizens.

“Nancy was the first forester I’ve heard say without tongue in cheek that climate change is real and it’s going to matter to everybody, including maple sugar producers. Many maple producers are farmers, conservative, most are guys and skeptics on climate change. Nancy represents a shift in attitude, taking responsibility. What can sugarmakers do? What I’d like to see is a political statement that climate change is real, and we need to elect officials to deal with it responsibly.”

The wood pile is an integral player in any traditional sugaring operation.

Naomi LaBarr enjoyed the event. “Terrific food! The speaker was engaging and ‘spouted’ loads of information about climate change (for example: maple trees are budding out earlier and how our climate zones have changed) and general forestry practices that will yield a healthy and productive forest that are even more important to ward off environmental stresses. She also spoke about what it means to be certified ‘organic maple syrup’. Many wonder how could maple syrup be anything but organic (not true!) so I was happy she shared that knowledge. This is the third year Marc has had this event, and all three years were not to be missed!” She also taps about ten trees on her property. “I look on it as the beginning of my gardening season!”

350.org founder Bill McKibben was last year’s featured speaker after the Pancake Supper. Bill is on the Board of Directors of the North Road Sugar Works as well as an author and Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, living in Ripton, Vermont. The board also includes Melkis Alvarez, Director of Programs for the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, and one of New York Nonprofit Media’s 40 Under 40 Rising Stars for 2015. Another member is John Elder, Professor Emeritus, English and Environmental Studies, Middlebury College. He and his wife, Rita, operate a sugarbush in Starksboro with the families of their two sons and are active in state and local environmental efforts. He was the first speaker at the annual Pancake Supper event. Rounding out the board is Mikailah McKee, Senior Project Analyst for forestry at the Climate Trust in Portland, Oregon.

Marc is already searching for next year’s speaker, and considering Dominique Browning co-founder of Mom’s Clean Air Force, a project of the Environmental Defense Fund. Dominique is the author of SLOW LOVE: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, & Found Happiness and the mother of two sons. She writes regularly for the New York Times and TIME.com and contributes to W, Wired, Whole Living, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. We would love to welcome her to Vershire!

Since the whole point of this operation - besides making delicious syrup! - is strengthening and educating the community, Marc has reached out to Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee, where Principal Tammy MacQueen responded with enthusiasm about doing something together in the future at the school or at sugar house or both. Marc feels it’s vital to educate kids on the realities of climate change since they’ll be dealing with the consequences of our actions and choices in these times.

North Road Sugar Works is also a member of the Local First Alliance of Vital Communities, supporting a strong local economy in the Upper Valley.

Last fall Marc started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the operation. As the update on the NRSW website indicates, $7,500 has been raised, most of it through the website’s Paypal option and direct donations.

Marc is also famous in the neighborhood for his delicious surplus squash, which he freely shares.

Now Marc is shopping for equipment, planning to finish the sugar house this spring and summer, and looking forward to “some sugaring next year here.” First things on his agenda for next year include a septic system to help welcome the public, and finishing the kitchen and canning room as well as buying equipment to make the syrup.

“Vershire is coming around in a lot of ways. We’ve got a lot of people sugaring now,” Marc said, estimating thirty to forty.  Not bad for a town of over seven hundred souls. These include Tim Ward, Mark Fogerty (you may remember him as the Vershire Recycling Coordinator in the recent Buzz post), Rita French, Martin Ward, David Fukushima, Naomi LaBarr, Helen and Gregory Wilson, Bob Younquist and many others.

Eleanor Zue was another diner and listener at the recent event. “I did enjoy the supper of wonderful ham and squash and pancakes and syrup, and sat with a couple from Chelsea with whom I enjoyed reminiscing about the thirty-plus-foot wind harp that stood on the height of land in their pasture in the early ‘70's and drew people from all over.

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“The talk by Nancy Patch was very informative and beautifully illustrated the ways of forest management and appreciation of diversity in our forests, so that they are more resilient in case of extreme weather events or disease or pest invasions. She illustrated the current and projected effects of climate change on our Vermont forest environments, including increase in invasive species. Evidently  our Orange County forests are likely to have rich soils which suit healthy maple stands good for sugaring. She also ably illustrated broader concerns of increasingly frequent heavy rains that cause erosion and flooding, and sea levels rising and encroaching on coastline populations. I was happy to find a state forester so broadly interested in fauna and flora and soils and weather, who is an excellent  speaker with graphic powerpoint illustrations. I came away having written down a quote [from E. B. White] she ended with: ‘Every morning I wake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan my day.’” In Vershire, we aim to do both.

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