The Sugar Season

A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family's Quest for the Sweetest Harvest


By Douglas Whynott

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A year in the life of one New England family as they work to preserve an ancient, lucrative, and threatened agricultural art–the sweetest harvest, maple syrup . . .

How has one of America’s oldest agricultural crafts evolved from a quaint enterprise with “sugar parties” and the delicacy “sugar on snow” to a modern industry?

At a sugarhouse owned by maple syrup entrepreneur Bruce Bascom, 80,000 gallons of sap are processed daily during winter’s end. In The Sugar Season, Douglas Whynott follows Bascom through one tumultuous season, taking us deep into the sugarbush, where sunlight and sap are intimately related and the sound of the taps gives the woods a rhythm and a ring. Along the way, he reveals the inner workings of the multimillion-dollar maple sugar industry. Make no mistake, it’s big business — complete with a Maple Hall of Fame, a black market, a major syrup heist monitored by Homeland Security, a Canadian organization called The Federation, and a Global Strategic Reserve that’s comparable to OPEC (fitting, since a barrel of maple syrup is worth more than a barrel of oil).

Whynott brings us to sugarhouses, were we learn the myriad subtle flavors of syrup and how it’s assigned a grade. He examines the unusual biology of the maple tree that makes syrup possible and explores the maples’ — and the industry’s — chances for survival, highlighting a hot-button issue: how global warming is threatening our food supply. Experts predict that, by the end of this century, maple syrup production in the United States may suffer a drastic decline.

As buckets and wooden spouts give way to vacuum pumps and tubing, we see that even the best technology can’t overcome warm nights in the middle of a season–and that only determined men like Bascom can continue to make a sweet like off of rugged land.




THOUGH IT WAS JANUARY and well ahead of the time when sap normally runs in the maple trees in New Hampshire and Vermont, the weather was warm and the trees were beginning to stir. When I was in Boston during that last week of January in 2012 the temperature was 54°. Students were wearing T-shirts on the Boston Common, and a friend told me that when she had some trees cut in her yard, the sap was running. I knew I had to get over to Bascom’s to see if it was running there.

Some meteorologists were saying there had been three Novembers, starting with the one in November, followed by two more in December and January. The fall of 2011 in the northeastern United States had been one of the warmest in in history, and January was the tenth consecutive month with above-normal temperatures. There were surprising temperature readings throughout the North, such as in Minot, North Dakota, where the temperature got up to 61° on January 5.

The question, of course, was whether February would be a fourth November. This seemed possible on February 1, when a heat wave passed through the Northeast and temperatures got into the sixties. The cause was two opposing weather fronts, one spinning clockwise to the west and a Bermuda front off the coast spinning counterclockwise, working together like paddle wheels to pull up a current of warm air from the south. The heat brought on a thaw and awakened maple trees, causing the earliest sap flow that all the maple syrup producers I talked to had ever experienced. Those who tapped their trees early enough got their first maple syrup crop of the 2012 sugar season.

I went to Bascom’s Maple Farm on February 1. I drove up a hill called Sugar House Road, passing by a row of ancient maple trees that line that road next to a hay field, next to lines of tubing in the woods and the house that Ken Bascom built and that Bruce Bascom grew up in. I came to a stop in the parking lot in front of the sugarhouse. Bascom’s was a quiet place now, and nothing like it would be in a few weeks—or maybe sooner—when steam would be blasting up through the roof in a column four feet wide and the scent of maple would fill the air.

Anyone going to that place experiences the soul-stirring views. Bascom’s stands near the top of a landform called Mount Kingsbury, in Acworth, New Hampshire. They are 1400 feet above sea level, not all that high up compared to other mountains, but the perch is quite high relative to the surrounding landscape. The Connecticut River, four miles to the west, is 200 feet above sea level, and so from Mount Kingsbury and where Bascom’s stands are views of fifty miles, halfway across Vermont to the Green Mountains, to some of the ski slopes and as far as Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. Someone who worked for Bruce Bascom said that Bruce had never left this mountain, which was both true and untrue. Bruce left it many times, but you could say his heart never left it, and he had set out after college to save this farm and had once said to me, “Why should I go anywhere when I can be here?” He also said, “I have seen a lot of sugarhouses, and I think this one is the best.”

Sugarhouses are located in some of the most beautiful places. They sit by groves of maple trees, sugar orchards some people call them or, more commonly, sugarbushes. Maples are among the most magnificent trees on earth, in a plant form long known as the giver of life. We know this ever so truly now, in that trees extract carbon from the air and produce oxygen. I, for one, love to go into the forest and breathe the cool oxygenated air. Maple trees process carbon during photosynthesis, making carbohydrates that they later convert to sugar when the warm weather comes and the sap begins to flow. The wood of the sugar maple, also called rock maple, is extremely hard and produces those striations called bird’s eye maple and tiger maple. During the time when the sap runs, the maple tree produces gas internally, which pressurizes the tree and aids in the sap flow—the maple is one of those rare trees that have air inside. And maple trees produce that soft green light in the summer season. Of course they most famously blaze spectacularly in the fall. Sugarhouses are there, by these places, by these trees. Sugarhouses help define those landscapes and the cultures built around them.

In the minds of most people, those who know something about maple syrup and its production, a sugarhouse is a cottage-sized building with a smokestack for a wood fire and a cupola or some other sort of opening for venting steam. The sugarhouse sits alongside a road, maybe an unpaved country road. There is a woodpile outside and maybe buckets hanging on trees nearby. Possibly there is a horse, maybe a draft horse used to pull a wagon and gather maple sap. Snow covers the ground, a fire is burning, and the sugarhouse door is open. There is syrup ready to be sampled.

I have wondered if there is the equivalent of the sugarhouse in any other form of agriculture. Apple orchards have their farm stands, and I know of some orchards where farm stands have grown into stores or where, in the fall, many people come to pick apples. But any other agricultures with the architectures of sugarhouses? Everyone who makes maple syrup has some form of sugarhouse. Bruce Bascom said that within an hour’s drive of his place in southwestern New Hampshire there are a thousand sugarhouses. He claims there are 20,000 maple sugarmakers in the United States, so if you subtract those who make syrup on a small scale in their kitchens or in backyards, there may be 15,000 sugarhouses in the United States. And many more in Canada, where much more syrup is made.

The image of the sugarhouse, smokestack, and steam is iconic, but sugarhouses are as varied as the imaginations of their owners. Some are swaybacked and mossy old sheds handed down through the generations. Some are as smartly carpentered as new barns. Others are plumber’s dreams of pipes and steam. Some are restaurants and sugarhouses in one, where people go for pancakes and to watch the syrup being made. Some are small personal museums with collections of buckets, shoulder yokes, and sugar molds. Bruce told me of one in Quebec with a piano, a dining room, and chef, and quarters for workers during the sugar season.

And there is this sugarhouse, the one at Bascom’s. Some people have said this one actually isn’t a sugarhouse, that it’s an industrial plant. Bruce always refers to the place as a sugarhouse. He wouldn’t say he was going to be in the office on any particular day—he would be at the sugarhouse. The Bascom sugarhouse is 170 feet long and 100 feet wide, and it is these dimensions, and maybe the buttoned-down look of the place, that puts doubt in people’s minds as to whether this place is in fact a sugarhouse.

When I stopped in front of Bascom’s on February 1, I went in the main entrance to the building, through the door below the sign with the large maple leaf. I saw Doris LeVasseur, who takes calls and, if necessary, speaks over the intercom that can be heard in this building and the warehouses behind it. Usually her messages are for Bruce. I passed by Doris and down a hallway with a row of offices for two financial managers, an office manager, an operations manager and, at the end, the office Bruce Bascom works from. He wasn’t there. His office is cluttered with papers and reports and many bottles and jugs of maple syrup of diverse origin as well as samples of maple sugar in powdered form. The blinds in Bruce’s office are always shuttered, with just enough open so he can look at the parking lot and down the hill. I went through the door beyond his office, grabbed a hairnet from a container, and walked into the room, a very large room where there was a small bottling plant and also an evaporator, medium in size but souped up in technology. The evaporator was silent and still, which meant they weren’t making syrup on February 1.

There are two floors in the Bascom sugarhouse, and I headed up to the second floor to the store. Bruce claims that from this store more equipment is sold for making maple syrup than from any other retail space in the United States. I have no way of verifying that, but I do know that on weekends and especially as the sugar season approaches, this place is as busy as a toy store before Christmas.

Bruce was standing behind the counter. Though he spends most of his time in the office, Bruce fills in at the store when needed or when he wants to talk and visit with sugarmakers. Bruce’s wife, Liz Bascom, was at the register. Bruce had on his usual dress—khaki trousers with frayed cuffs, a worn plaid jacket, and a hat with Bascom Maple Farms on the front. He dressed down in the store and made a point to not show wealth because he didn’t want his customers thinking that he made too much money. Bruce wanted to buy a new truck—and could have, would have paid cash for one—but he just couldn’t seem to do it. He would say his father never spent money on consumer goods, only on farm improvements, and he could get a lot more miles out of that Toyota sedan he drove, that one with the New Hampshire license plate that read, “Maple.” When he was in the store dealing with customers, he usually had an amused expression on his face. Bruce was having a good time there. Sixty-one years old, with a ring of white hair and a bald pate, Bruce reminded me of Ben Franklin. He was an artisan thinker.

I asked him what he thought of this warm weather. “I can’t predict the season,” he said. “There’s no snow so far, but just because the ground is clear doesn’t mean we won’t get three feet of snow in March.” Most people wouldn’t want three feet of snow in March, but that wasn’t the case for the people in the store—and for Bruce. Snow in March meant a longer sap run.

He said he had been to an agricultural fair in Barre, Vermont, that he talked to others like himself who bought maple syrup in very large quantities.

“Everybody is long,” Bruce said. This meant a surplus supply, following the big maple syrup crop of the cold winter and spring of 2011. The 2011 crop had been fifty percent more than in 2010, a winter on the warmer side.

A pressing question for Bruce beyond the weather was how the crop of 2012, yet to come, would play into the price of maple syrup on the bulk market. Maple syrup is sold by the pound on the bulk market, rather than by the gallon (there are eleven pounds to a gallon). Bruce bought millions of pounds every year. For him, a nickel on the price per pound for a million pounds of syrup would mean a $50,000 difference. “Too much syrup could be a disaster,” Bruce said. “Too little and the price could move up.” Bruce felt strongly that the price should not move up.

From the reception area down below, Doris called Bruce’s name over the intercom. There was a call for him, and she said the person’s name. “This guy calls me every year,” Bruce said. A syrup trader from Quebec. Because he was long, Bruce wasn’t interested. “I get calls about Quebec syrup every week,” he told the caller. “I’ve turned away a lot of Quebec syrup.”

At the counter I chatted with Walt Lacey, a retired airline pilot who was buying a few metal buckets. Walt had a small sugarbush and sugarhouse on land his grandfather had farmed, near the city of Keene. Walt hung about 200 buckets on his trees and made about fifty gallons of maple syrup per year. He liked doing it the old-fashioned way. “I can’t see putting in tubing,” he said.

Another call came for Bruce, someone from Connecticut. “So you’ve been boiling, huh?” he said. Sugarmakers in Connecticut had been boiling since mid-January. I heard that some were having a very good year.

Bruce left to help a customer but told me the tapping crew was working in Ken’s Lot, so I went out to see if I could find them there. By late morning the temperature was already into the forties. As I walked up the hill I turned to look at the view into Vermont. The trails on the ski slope at Stratton Mountain had snow on them, but it was man-made snow. Nevertheless, the view was inspiring. People in New Hampshire paid a surcharge on their taxes for views like these—a view tax it was called. A tax upon the eyes, and the spirit. Bruce’s view tax must have been a pretty sum.

Ken’s Lot is the sugarbush closest to the buildings and the lot named after Bruce’s father, Ken Bascom, who ran this farm from the 1950s until he retired.

Ken’s Lot ran along the eastern slope of Mount Kingsbury and curved around the northern part of the mountain. To get to the edge of it I walked up the hill and by what they called the “New Building,” the warehouse with a giant refrigerated basement that Bruce erected in 2010. I came upon a stand of sixty-year-old maples, tall trees with straight trunks, well spaced apart, each with its own piece of ground and sky above. Tubing lines ran to all the maple trees, which gave the woods an industrial pallor, but they were still beautiful. Walking in these woods always brought me the feeling of peace, and another feeling I can’t quite identify but associate with the idea of dignity.

I hadn’t walked far when I heard the sound of the work, the tap of a hammer on a spout. I stopped and listened and heard the drill, and looked through the trees and saw one of the workers, one of the tapping crew. I headed that way and saw Gwen Hinman.

Gwen is a sheepshearer who takes time off each year when her work is slow to tap trees at Bascom’s. When the sugar season gets underway she checks tubing lines for leaks. Over the last two years I saw Gwen work not only at tapping trees but also in some difficult situations after storms. After a snowstorm with winds, when trees and branches fell upon the tubing, I found her wading through deep snow to repair and refasten broken lines. After a heavy ice storm that caused worse damage and resulted in a week of repair work I followed Gwen as she raced through the woods checking tubing for leaks, and for spouts pulled out of the trees. She worked in a rainstorm that day and had to empty her boots and wring out her socks every once in a while. The first time I saw Gwen in the woods I walked right up to her out of the surprise of seeing a woman there, and I must have startled her. I asked her how long she had been doing this, and she first said, “I don’t know.” Then, after a moment, “about ten years.”

A year ago, in this same lot when it was very cold, I watched Gwen tap trees while standing on two feet of frozen snow. Now there were only traces of snow on the ground. There had been two storms this season, a Nor’easter at the end of October that brought three feet of snow and another brief storm in mid-January. But in this section exposed to the sun, that snow had all melted. Gwen was walking on leaf cover on this warming day.

“I see you again,” I said. I told her she didn’t have to stop working on my account, that I didn’t want to prevent her from putting in her thousand taps, the number each member of the crew aimed for each day.

“That’s okay,” she answered. “I did twelve hundred a couple of days ago. I can miss a few.”

She went to another maple tree and drilled a hole. She used a portable hand drill. The drill bits were just over a quarter inch in diameter, and a thin stream of shavings dropped to the ground. She set the drill into her tool belt, pulled out a hammer, pulled a spout from a belly pack, and set it into the hole. She gave it three taps. A woman named Deb Rhoades, who had been tapping for forty years, told me that three taps was just right and four was too many, though she could tell by the sound if the spout was driven correctly. The sound of the spout going in had a flutelike quality, and when a tapping crew worked in close proximity, the woods had a rhythm and ring. One time I had seen a distressed woodpecker come flying across a ravine to see what was going on, perching and watching for a while before flying away, cawing out its disapproval.

After she set the spout Gwen pulled from a fitting a looped eighteen-inch length of tubing, called a dropline, and attached it to the spout. Immediately sap flowed out of the maple and into the tube.

“It’s really running,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” Gwen answered. “And the vacuum pumps haven’t even been turned on. There are three thousand gallons in the tank at the sugarhouse now.”

She stood casually with the drill in her hand, bit pointing upward, and said she had been working for four days. She was alone here, and three other tappers were on the northern side of Ken’s Lot. She said, “It’s good ground for tapping, especially compared to last year.” The snow had been deep and frozen then. “They put me on level ground the first few days so I could get my legs in shape. I’m in better shape this year anyway because I’ve been playing hockey and shearing a lot of sheep.”

Gwen was tall and slender, with greenish eyes and a splash of freckles on her cheeks. She wore black snow pants and a light jacket, a wool hat, and work boots. She was light on her feet and moved easily and quickly through the woods. Her father, a well-known shearer in New Hampshire and Vermont, had taught her the trade of shearing sheep. He was a schoolteacher; Gwen had attended a private preparatory school and then the University of New Hampshire, but she left after a year to shear sheep, going to New Zealand. When Gwen’s father died in 2010 she had inherited his flock of more than a hundred animals. It was a good inheritance, a legacy, but an expensive one at first; during the winter of 2011 Gwen spent $500 a month feeding his flock. She couldn’t let any of them go at first. She also inherited his work—“I’m saying yes to everything,” she said then.

She liked the outdoors, obviously. For the last five years Gwen had been living in a tent on her mother’s property, close enough to find refuge in her mother’s house now and then. She was planning to build a house on her own land, and had put together a small sawmill to make the lumber, but the project was delayed with new fortunes. “A lot has been going on,” she said when I asked about the house.

I followed her from tree to tree as she drilled holes and drove spouts, and in all of them the sap leapt into the tubing lines. The trees were “shocked,” to use one of the scientific terms, by the sunlight and the current of warm air passing through New England. There was a formula to describe this principle, developed by a maple researcher at the University of Vermont, a poetic line that went, “The extent of the shock is equivalent to the rate of the flow.” I assumed that meant that the thermodynamic energy of the sun resulted in an equivalent amount of sap flowing in and from the tree. Or, more simply, it seemed that sunlight and sap were intimately related in this realm of life.

Gwen worked her way down the slope at Ken’s Lot until she reached a section another worker had already tapped. She then moved northward, over to another section of trees. There was more shade in these woods and more snow. We walked along a road once used for gathering, back when they used horses at Bascom’s. We climbed over a sizeable stonewall that followed the uneven and steep slope, a wall almost completely intact after two centuries, from the days when they raised sheep in these hills during the first economic boom in New England and a time when this land was almost completely cleared of trees.

On the north side in the shaded woods we were soon walking entirely on snow that had been in place since October after the big storm. Gwen found a block of tubing and followed the lines. She drilled a hole and set a spout, but this time the sap didn’t run out of the tree. The same was true for the next spout, and then another.

“These trees are frozen,” she said. From the perspective of a maple syrup producer in New Hampshire on February first, that was probably a good thing.



I HAD TALKED TO Bruce Bascom for the first time after learning about an insect found in Worcester, Massachusetts, an invasive species called the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB). The ALB had moved from packing crates into trees in the city. It would attack any leafy tree but had a preference for maples, and I had heard that it loved sugar maples. There was a quarantine, and 20,000 trees were destroyed. The alarm was obvious—what would happen if the ALB got into the northern maple regions? How would the maple syrup industry be affected? Or the fall foliage?

We had moved to New Hampshire so my wife could begin a new career as a teacher, and her third-grade class visited a maple sugarhouse every spring. The trips were part of the social studies curriculum, part of an effort to learn about local economic culture. The sugarhouse they visited was on a dairy farm, so they had the opportunity to learn about that too. The kids gathered at picnic tables in the sugarhouse and sampled the new syrup, poured over ice cream. It was a special time of the year for them as well as for the community. My wife and I began to visit other sugarhouses on weekends, and this became a spring ritual for us.

The maple sugaring season, or rather, the sap flow, also meant the end of winter. Anyone who has lived in northern New England knows that the winters are long and sometimes harsh. My wife noticed that red-winged blackbirds arrived on our hill between March 6 and March 9 every year, calling out their koo-ree even when there was ice on the pond. At about the same time the sap buckets went up on the trees. Another thing I noticed along the roads was that the sunlight coming through the tubing lines would glisten through the sap inside. This became the earliest sign of spring, this indication that liquid was moving underground and through the trees.

Fortunately the ALB can fly only short distances and so migrates slowly. The quarantine seems to have prevented its movement outside of the zone around Worcester. Not that there isn’t concern. When I went to Bascom’s for the first time and met Bruce, we talked about the ALB, and Bruce pointed out some identification cards there for the taking. But he talked about much more and at length, and he showed such a passion for the history, lore, and culture of making maple syrup that I wanted to keep listening.

Bruce gave me his short talk on the history of the maple syrup industry in the United States. It peaked around the time of the Civil War, when maple syrup was associated with the abolitionist movement. “No sugar made by slaves,” went the slogan. Sugarmakers actually made sugar then, dry or partially wet. For most families in those regions maple sugar was the primary sweetener. After the war, when the tariff on white sugar was reduced, dry maple sugar could no longer compete broadly in the marketplace. Still, at the time of the US centennial in 1876 there were 154 “sugar places” in the town of Acworth, which produced 214,000 pounds of dry maple sugar. In the early 1900s Bruce’s grandfather and his brother held “buy days,” when they collected dry maple sugar from other farmers and carried it by horse and wagon to the train station on the other side of the Connecticut River in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Gradually the industry went into decline as the prices fell. Some farmers liquidated their sugar orchards, selling their trees to mills that specialized in rock maple wood. A hurricane in 1938 destroyed many remaining maple groves. By the 1960s, when Bruce was a teenager, the industry had fallen to ten percent of what it had been a century before. But in the 1960s plastic tubing began to be used in maple orchards. Some sugarmakers would never use it, would never suck sap out of their trees, but plastic tubing saved the industry, Bruce said, and made possible a new level of pure maple syrup production.

When we talked that first time, standing in the store, Bruce said something he would repeat: “There is more to the maple industry than people realize.” I wondered whether he was talking to me because of some deep feelings for the industry—it was easy to see he had them. The month was February 2010, and they had just started tapping trees. On the spur of the moment I asked if I could watch. Bruce said, “Show up and see what happens.”

A FEW MONTHS LATER Bruce was inducted into the Maple Hall of Fame—yes, there is such a thing—at the American Maple Museum, in Croghan, New York. The ceremony is held each year in May after the season is over and when the equipment has been put away, and it was held during a pageant for the Maple Queen of New York—yes, there is such a young woman—who goes to agricultural fairs around the state. Bruce’s sales manager, Arnold Coombs, introduced him to the audience. Arnold told of how, when Bruce was in college, his mother pleaded with him not to come back to the farm and to get a job at a corporation instead. Arnold said, “If only she could see you now.” He said that in his reading about successful people, they all shared the characteristic of intense curiosity, and Bruce had that. Arnold said that when he was in the business of trading syrup on the bulk market, he and Bruce met every year to work out terms and signed their contract on a napkin. Arnold talked about the equipment store, said it was the “Walmart of maple equipment stores,” and this brought a few laughs.

I kept returning to Bascom’s, following the crew as they tapped, watching them clean up after storms and as they checked tubing during the sugar season. I was happy to tag along—it provided me with a reason to get out into the woods. I followed the 2010 season, which started off strong during late February but then suddenly turned warm. I talked often with Bruce and occasionally went places with him, mostly to the area of northern Vermont that has the richest maple culture in the United States.

I soon realized that the equipment store at Bascom’s served the function of a normal sugarhouse, in that people came and socialized. I saw that Saturdays, when Bruce worked in the store, was the best time to talk and to meet other sugarmakers.


  • “What began as a curious search to uncover the mechanics and marketing of maple syrup turns, in his calm telling, into a case study of how venerable family enterprises deal with an uncertain future…Parts of this tale recall John McPhee's fact-laden reports about our earth and those who seek to comprehend its hidden components.”

    Winnipeg Free Press, 3/1/14

    “There are many flavours in this affectionate look at the maple-syrup industry in the United States, along with a light taste of the Canadian flow…The Sugar Season includes nostalgia, family histories, business competition, technological development, the free-market approach of the U.S. (compared to the marketing-board approach of Quebec) and, as a disturbing subtext, environmental concern…The Sugar Season does a good job of taking us from the days of tin buckets and wooden spouts to vacuum pumps and tubing, also providing readers with a look to the future…[Whynott] makes you pause and appreciate a nibble on a maple leaf sugar candy.”

    Saveur, 3/6/14
    “A closely observed portrait of a largely unknown world—one that is full of interesting characters who have devoted their lives to transforming an intensely seasonal crop into a global commodity…it's a smart, engrossing read that gives this sweet crop—one of America's oldest agricultural products—its full due.”
  • “Whynott examines both the complicated past of the maple syrup industry and questions about its future…In a world where one barrel of syrup is worth more than a barrel of oil, Whynott's descriptions of black market dealings and syrup heists highlight the value of this sweet crop…Balancing the global history of the maple syrup trade with its local impact, The Sugar Season immerses readers in a reading experience both historical and personal in nature.”

    Publishers Weekly, 2/21/2014

    “This inside look at the ups and downs of the maple syrup industry over its year-long harvesting and production cycle will be fascinating to anyone interested in the modern food industry, the effect of global warming on agriculture, and just how that sweet syrup got from a stand of sugar maples to the breakfast table…Enlightening and alarming.”

    Minneapolis Star Tribune, 3/9/14

    “Tells the story of the annual sap run, when the cycle of warming daytime temperatures and nighttime freezes triggers the movement of sap in the sugar maples. Despite growth and technological advances, it remains such an elemental story—of trees and their biology, of children working alongside grandparents, of steam and sparks in the sugar house in the overnight boiling down of the sap…Lyrical history, geography and insights into family life centered around a demanding business.”

  • Beverly Citizen, 3/15/14
    “[A] fascinating exploration of the maple syrup industry…Part business case study and part John McPhee nonfiction adventure into the depths of a subject—as told by a host of driven, devoted and talented characters. Whynott's comprehensive lay of the land includes climate change, the transformation of syrup production into a bankable industry, the interdependent community of syrup makers, the forests and their health, the process of making syrup and the complexity of the syrup itself.”

    Easthampton Valley Advocate (Ma), 3/13/14
    “Shows the business of maple sugaring as a sophisticated, complex industry, subject, like all industries, to market forces and circumstances beyond producers' control.”

    Toronto Globe and Mail, 3/22/14
    “Provides keen insights into this particular branch of modern agriculture, and makes a strong case for maple syrup as a bellwether for the continent's environmental health.”

    The Writer, May 2014
    “An in-depth contemplation of the maple syrup industry.”
  • Boston Globe, 3/5/14

    “A wide-ranging look inside the maple syrup business…Whynott skillfully explains how maple syrup gets made, how vitally important weather is, and how global warming may threaten the industry's future…Whynott's engaging book offers a skillful and fascinating peek behind the curtain of one of the region's oldest and most beloved traditional industries.”

    Boston Globe, 3/10/14

    “Whynott offers scores of statistics while keeping his narrative focused squarely on the people who labor in the sugarhouses that dot the New England Landscape.”

    New York Post, 3/2/14

    “While focusing on New Hampshire's Bascom family, who've been producing maple syrup since 1853, Whynott details a multimillion-dollar industry with its own hall of fame, a black market and an OPEC-like organization. And if you've ever wondered how reverse osmosis figures in maple syrup, you'll find out here.”

    Taste for Life, March 2014

    “Offers a glimpse into one of the oldest agricultural crafts in the US and the challenges it faces.”, 3/4/14
  • Keene Sentinel, 4/6/14
    “[Whynott] introduces readers to many of Bascom's neighbors, maple syrup makers who produce it in the wood-fired mom-and-pop traditions of quintessential New Hampshire. The book doesn't hide the sour side of the industry or even the Bascom family warts.”

    Berkeley Beacon, 4/3/14
    “Sheds light on the underappreciated maple syrup industry…[Whynott's] words bring the reader to the sugarhouses, making the importance of maple syrup a relatable topic for anyone.”

    San Francisco Book Review, 4/11/14
    “[Whynott] takes us through the entire process from sapling to store shelf, from how it was done in the past to the current process…I was amazed how easily Whynott provided an educational experience with the feel of a heartfelt memoir…This book is just too delicious to pass up.”

    Greenfield Recorder, 4/12/14
    “Whynott spins a riveting tale…He convincingly argues that because of its dependence on individual trees and temperatures, the maple business may be closer to nature than most other enterprises.”

    Digital Americana, Winter 2014
    “One of those rare texts that makes you want to know more about the subject that you are being told about…The story that Whynott presents to us is an inherently American one.”
  •, 6/19/14
    “[Whynott] is a master of observation and description, who combines just the right amount of romanticism and humor with research and facts…An intricate, information-packed story. There is also a whole lot of drama and international intrigue…But the book also looks at the richness within life as a maple farmer: the multigenerational traditions and history, the community building and friendships, and the beauty of the forest and ecological respect for the tree…The Sugar Season serves as a thorough, hard-hitting example of the ripple effect climate change and pollution can and will have.”

    Arcadiana Lifestyle, October 2014
    “Offer[s] ways to wean yourself off that sweet stuff.”

    Yankee Magazine, December 2014
    “A terrific read, with many intriguing facts about botany, technology, and international business. But it's also the story of people doing what they love in a place they love.”
  • Keene Sentinel, 4/13/2014
    "Whynott's deft hand makes The Sugar Season an admiring book about a hard-working, imaginative, determined family building an ancient rite of spring into a thriving, honorable life with nature...[An] eye-opening, behind-the-scene book."

    Green Book Festival, 2014 Award Winner, General Nonfiction Category

    Vermont Country SamplerApril 2014
    “To understand what could happen this year and the years to come—for better or worse—read The Sugar Season.”

    The Hippo, 3/13/14
    “[Whynott] keeps the book interesting with a family narrative.”

    VegNews, August 2014
    “An engaging and heartwarming read of the maple syrup business.”

    Washington Independent Review of Books, 7/23/14
    “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 provides a compelling overview into an industry entering the 21st century with head-spinning technological advances.”
  • Shelf Awareness for Readers, 3/14/14
    “Whynott delves into the industry's particulars, shining light on its history, science and politics. Whynott's love for his subject is clear; his writing grows lyrical when he rhapsodizes about winter walks in the woods or the taste of pure maple syrup fresh off the boil… A fascinating glimpse into an ancient process that feeds a thoroughly modern industry.”

    Roanoke Times, 3/9/14
    “Pass me the doughboys and a bottle of Grade A Light Amber, please.”

    Hudson Valley News, 3/5/14
    “Delightful…This fascinating book tells us what we need to know about an undertaking that is steeped in tradition and is now embracing new technologies that can ensure its continuing existence. It's a sweet read.”

    Manchester Union-Leader, 3/8/14
    “Tells the story of the 2012 sugar season as well as Bascom's rise to being the largest maple syrup producer in the Granite State.”

    InfoDad, 3/13/14
    “An enthralling exploration of the maple-syrup industry and the people who keep this very old occupation (by American standards) going in the 21st century…Intriguing and engaging.”

  • “The cycle of the maple season is one of the great signifiers of the mountain year in the northeast. It is lovingly delineated here, with a foreshadowing of the shifts ahead in a changing world. May it move us to action!”—Bill McKibben, author of Oil and Honey

    “Whynott has delivered the most complete and compelling account to date of the modern maple industry. His cast of vividly drawn characters and his descriptions of the challenges they overcome will make you feel like you're right there beside them in the North Country's sugarbushes. It's one sweet read.”—Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland

    “Once again, Douglas Whynott demonstrates his uncanny ability to open up what seems to be ordinary and reveal it as something much more than we ever could have imagined. In this case, it's the maple syrup industry, and Whynott take us from the metal bucket hanging on a tree into a world of currency bets, Global Strategic Reserves, climate change, and international trade. It's quite a story, and quite a book.”—Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

    Kirkus Reviews, 1/15/2014
    “Thorough research provides fascinating insight into the sweet business of maple syrup.”

    Library Journal, 3/1/2014

On Sale
Mar 4, 2014
Page Count
304 pages
Da Capo Press

Douglas Whynott

About the Author

Douglas Whynott is the critically acclaimed author of four nonfiction books. He has written articles and essays for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Smithsonian, Outside, Islands, Reader’s Digest, Yankee, and other publications. In True Stories, a history of literary journalism by Norman Sims published in 2008, Whynott is described as “an accomplished master of the literary journalism of everyday life.”

His book about migratory commercial beekeepers, Following the Bloom, was published in 1991 by Stackpole Books, in 1992 by Beacon Press in the Concord Library Series, and in 2004 in a Penguin/Tarcher edition with a new preface and epilogue. It was optioned for development as a feature film. Giant Bluefin, his book about the New England bluefin tuna fishery, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in hardcover in 1995 and North Point Press in paperback in 1996. It was a highly recommended selection in the New York Review of Books Reader’s Catalog and was reviewed widely, including a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered. A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time, a book about a boatyard in Maine owned by the son of E. B. White, was an independent bookstore bestseller, and was read in its entirety on an NPR books program at the affiliate in Ames, Iowa. It was published by Doubleday in 1999, by Washington Square Press in 2000. Australian rights were purchased by Hodder Headline. A Country Practice, his book about a veterinary clinic and a woman just out of vet school, was published by North Point Press in 2004. It was optioned for development as a television series by Creative Convergence, and selected as one of the best ten nonfiction books of 2004 by New Hampshire Public Radio.

Whynott has taught writing and literature at the University of Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke College, and Columbia University. He is currently an associate professor of writing in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Program at Emerson College, where he served as director of the MFA program from 2002-2009. He received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach at the University of the Andes, Bogota, Colombia in the spring of 2013. In addition to his writing and teaching, he has been at different times a concert piano tuner, a dolphin trainer, a commercial fisherman, and a boogie-woogie pianist. Whynott is an eleventh generation Cape Codder. He lives in Langdon, a small town in southwestern New Hampshire.

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