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Blog

 

 

Plowing the Woods

Tina Hartell


The Vermont woods are littered with evidence of past human disturbance. Many of the stone walls that criss-cross the woods and lines our roads were made in the late 1700s/early 1800s as European settlers deforested and plowed the land for crops. Every time their plow came across a rock in the ground they would stop, pick it up, and carry it to the side of their field - an arduous task as the glaciers dumped horrible amounts of rock during their retreat 10,000 years ago. Stone walls are often nothing more than stone dumps. While some of them do delineate old (and current) property lines, many of them just separate different fields.

In this photo, the forest floor on the left side of the wall comes up higher - almost to the top of the wall - whereas the right side drops down. This is called a plow terrace, and is further evidence of plowing, as repeated turns of the plow caused soil to be pushed down hill until it hung up against the stones. 

IMG_7552.jpg
 A plow terrace on the left of the stone wall

A plow terrace on the left of the stone wall

On either side of the wall, you can also see that plowing over 150 years ago has smoothed out the natural irregularities of the forest floor making the ground fairly smooth and even, a trait that doesn’t exist on unplowed land.

Much of this cultivated land was turned over to pasture land when sheep were introduced to Vermont in the mid-1800s, and then much of it returned to forest between 1900-1950. Vermont has young forests - but aggressive as hell as it is a fight to keep land open. Trees are an unstoppable force.

Degree Days

Tina Hartell

During sugaring season, I am forecast obsessed. I’m not a true weather geek because, while it’s super cool, I have no idea how to make weather-forecast models based on existing data. 

So I just frantically check two different weather forecasts probably to the tune of six times a day.  It’s strangely necessary because a 2-3 degree difference in either daytime or nighttime temperatures can determine whether the sap will run through the night, when we turn on and off the RO during the day, if the sap tank could overflow, when I might actually go to bed, when we start boiling, etc. Temperature becomes the governing factor of my entire day for weeks on end.  

I find I interact with people differently too. I’m horrified that people don’t know that we might get 1” of freezing rain on Thursday or that the nighttime temps will be above freezing for three straight nights. HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW THIS! Can you believe that it’s not going to get above freezing for the entire first week of April?!? Unthinkable! What is going on? And wait till you see what’s going to happen on Tuesday!

But that’s farming, and we are farmers because of this one fact: We are temperature bound. We cannot control the temperatures and the temperatures control when the sap runs. What we can control is how much sap we get once it starts running and how quickly we can process it. But we can’t make it run.

But then sugaring ends and spring eventually does come, and I find I might go an entire day *gasp* without checking the weather. Or I might look at the week’s weather on Monday and then be duly outraged when the sunny Friday predicted on Monday is actually rainy, and  I happily get caught in rainstorms and wear too many layers. 

2018 Season Wrap-Up

Tina Hartell

April 23, 2018

Last boil. The sap just sputtered out. Nothing fun or dramatic like filter presses jamming or stinky, unboil-able sap. We just stopped getting sap. The period of time between tapping - early February - and these late sap runs was just too long. The tap holes started healing over and reducing the amount of sap we were getting. And despite the long season, it was only just average in terms of yield. We didn't break any production records although we did break a number of other records

Earliest boil: February 20

Latest boil: April 23

Longest stretch of time between boils: 24 days

Number of days boiling in April: 7 (we generally boil every day in April until the season ends). We had two week-long freeze ups in April. 

Number of feet of snow that came in March: 6

But, as our in-house first-graders say, 'You get what you get and you don't get upset.' We have no control when the season starts and finishes. All we can do is be ready and try to keep it going as long as possible. 

It seems the season is extending longer and longer. Back in the day, old timers wouldn't even start tapping until Town Meeting Day (the first Tuesday in March). Now people are tapping in January and having to keep the vacuum running in an attempt to prevent the tap holes from sealing. 

April 2, 2018

After 6' of snow, a 24-day freeze up, and a lot of powder days on the hill, the sap finally ran March 25 and we have been going straight out since then. We're hoping to push out through into next week although the weather isn't too favorable. We're constantly scanning the long-term weather forecast for when night temperatures will be consistently above freezing, as that signals the end of the sugaring season. Until then, I am hoping to make the last 1/3 of our crop. 

March 11, 2018

The sap stopped running March 2 when the first of the two nor'easters blew through. The second one, which hit March 8, dumped 30" of snow on Bobo's Mountain and through the mountains of southern Vermont. Between powder runs, we finished off the syrup in the pans, cleaned them, and are now waiting for the next sap run which really may not come for a while. Another storm and up to 12 more inches of snow is coming tomorrow. The sugarbush is buried, and I am hoping optimistically that the snow will "settle" before uncovering lines and fixing anything that's popped or broken in the last two weeks. 

February 28, 2018

The 2018 sugaring season has exploded onto the scene like Chloe Kim and Jessie Diggins in Pyeong Chang. We boiled seven of the last nine days in February. And the sap keeps running. And we keep filling barrels. What this means for how the rest of the season plays out is anyone's guess. 

Improvements to the sugar house this year include a separate, insulated kitchen area with a coffee maker and stove; actual chairs; and a brand new barrel mover. It's the little things. 

Magical Mystery #1: Our filter press and reverse osmosis filters have been working hard to keep up with what appeared to be dirty/mineral sap. We thought it was just the first sap run and it would clear. But it didn't. Then we thought there was something amiss with our equipment, so we checked around. It turns out many sugar makers in our area (and maybe beyond) are experiencing this, and that the word on the street/text threads is that there is a high manganese content in the sap that is choking all our filters. If anyone can explain this and why it's cyclical -we haven't experienced this before- give us a shout. I haven't had time to research it: I've been too busy making coffee. 

Freezing Trees

Tina Hartell

How do tree wells form?  Why does the snow directly around the tree melt faster than the snow in the surrounding area? I’ve always imagined that trees must emit heat because they, too, are alive and warm and have juices flowing through them. And while their juices (sap) aren’t exactly 98F like ours, they’re above freezing, right? Maybe. 

These yellow birches do emit heat but not through an internal furnace like mammals and birds have. Trees have a lower albedo than the surrounding snowpack. Or to it put another way, they’re absorbing more radiant energy from the sun. This absorbed heat then melts the snow. Some plants do have an internal furnace so to speak and can generate energy (aka heat). Bulbs, in particular, demonstrate their capacity to generate energy as they pop up through the snowpack in early spring. 

At our house two nights ago it was -7F. If trees don't possess an internal furnace, what is it that keeps them from freezing? They do absorb some sunlight like ectothermic animals (reptiles, amphibians, insects), but a sunny, -10 degree day won't keep cells from freezing. The snakes and frogs know this. They spend their winter buried in mud or locked down in a cave in some strange dormant torpor. Alas, trees do not have horizontal mobility, so those evolved to live in northern climes, must ride out the bitter cold. 

Like any living thing, if a tree's cells die, the tree dies. Water is plentiful inside the tree's cambium - the thin layer of xylem and pholem just under the bark. Their job is to move water and nutrients (aka SAP!) up and down the tree's stem. Xylem carries water and on cold nights it does freeze! As the ice crystals expand in the xylem, the surrounding wood cracks and makes a sharp "pop" noise that I often hear when I'm outside trying to warm up the truck on cold mornings.

But xylem and the surrounding wood is made out of dead cells. So if they freeze, the living cells of the tree aren't affected. The living cells are in the phloem, the tissue carrying nutrients. So how does the phloem not freeze? Supercooling. 

Supercooling is a strange phenomenon in where liquids can sink below their designated freezing point by not allowing any nucleation (growth) sites for ice crystals to form. This can occur up to -36.6F for water but because there are dissolved solids in phloem, it lowers the supercooled temperature to around -41F without freezing. What if the temperature goes BELOW -41F? Then trees employ another strategy that involves the dehydration of the phloem cells. The trees (somehow) force water out of the living cells into the extracellular space (the space BETWEEN the cells). There, the phloem freezes. But the cells survive, completely dehydrated and shriveled, waiting for it to warm back up so the phloem can reenter.

Of course, forest composition changes as you move away from the equator and eventually the great boreal forests of the far north peter out to tundra. It just becomes too cold for trees. But they survive some intense conditions with just a few pops.  (Adapted from a previous post.)

 

 

 

Bathing

Tina Hartell

I'm finally back in the woods for the first time since May.

Bobbie Jean and I are cruising the sugarbush replacing drop lines and old tubing. It's a good place for me to be right now - a necessary place to be to soothe election/world-frayed nerves and restore hope. The Japanese have a term for this recognized form of relaxation called shinrin-yoko or "forest bathing." 

Long ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Burt Barnes was my beloved forest ecology professor. He was small, brilliant, elven, and could move through the woods faster than I thought anyone was able. 

We students stumbled along after him, never quite keeping up but always enjoying the chase.

Years later when I became a high-school forest ecology teacher of sorts, I too started moving through the woods with more ease. Or perhaps it was just more in comparison to my students who scrambled behind me. Now I was the one who had to wait, who wasn't out of breath, who knew how to walk in the woods. 

It takes some time to learn how to bushwack over uneven ground, over rocks, and through face-slapping vegetation. 

You constantly have to change your pace, look ahead, skibble here and there, and pay attention to the ground. The fall leaf cover is especially tricky. The leaves cover up ankle-biting holes between rocks and hide slippery logs. The first day I wiped out several times and was slow and unsteady. I even came home with a bloody shin after falling through a hidden hole in the rocks. Eventually though I got my footing - literally - and started moving with confidence through the crunch. 

I have renewed encouragement for my former students chasing my through the woods and am grateful for Burt's patience with me long ago. For it's a gift to be able to smell the deep musk of these mushrooms or see a chilly garter snake before she heads to her winter den. If you don't see me on Wednesday, I'll be bathing.

 

 

 

 

 

Mammal Invasion

Tina Hartell

I spent the first part of 2016 crowing from the rooftops about how mild the winter was: No snowshoes needed in the sugarbush ever, one driveway plow, only one night in early February when we thought the heat in the house couldn’t keep up with the outside temperatures (it did), and an epic sugaring season. 

There were some other effects the mild winter had on the rest of our northern woodlands. Specifically, there was incredible over-winter survival rates for our furry mammalian neighbors. They are the ones who truly had an epic winter, and there sure are a lot of them around right now. 

Bobo and I are keeping track. To date:

(Note the absence of photographic evidence. Mammals are notoriously photo shy and also enjoy night-time mischief - a challenge to capture with a crappy iPhone while not wearing your contacts)

  1. Voles: So these larger mouse-like critters repeatedly ate all our lettuce, kale, beets, and spinach seedlings. Once the tiny shoots popped up, they nibbled the cotyledons off just leaving frail, translucent stems. However, I’ve since then won that particular battle. 
  2. Woodchuck: This guy/gal was wretched. It destroyed all our Brassica starts (TWICE) including red cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The green and Napa cabbage somehow survived. We’re taking a total loss on the Brassicas this year. 
  3. Porcupine: “Pruned” our raspberries. Leaving us with the potential for a great 2017 crop but not so much for 2016.
  4. Bear: Never have I ever seen so many bears. We have two at our house who we have established a relationship with vis-a-vis our trash/recycling and compost. They’re insanely (large) strong and clever and can generally undo any thing-a-ma-gigy you try to put together to keep them out of said areas. We also have one cruising the sugarbush which I’m scared to uncover what damage it’s done on the tubing once I get back in the woods come November. 
  5. Mice: DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED. It feels a bit Hitchcock-ian. 
  6. Cat: Bobo’s adopted a cat to address the situation in #5, but to date Echo seems more of a lover than a fighter. We don’t mind.

I have spent quite a bit of time this summer trying to outwit, outsmart, outdo, and just OUT these fellas with very little success. Hats off to you my friends. Party on.