Hardwick Farmer on Sugar Shack Parties, Maple Tree Care, and Horses Who Know His Voice

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Forrest Foster runs a small organic dairy in Hardwick. He works from about 5 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. every weekday, and at this time of year, in addition to all his household chores, he sugars. Independent producer Erica Heilman stopped by last weekend to see how he was doing.

Forrest Foster: “It’s yesterday afternoon. Dip into it. Is it okay?”

Erica: “Oh man.”

Forrest Foster: “And use it. I drank about that jug. I had a full jug. I drank about that much the first afternoon – before doing chores I made it disappear. I’ve had this here since 1999, and I haven’t burned it. And most people are three or four years old and they feel comfortable or they think they can go out and look or…”

Erica: “Go out and watch what?”

Forrest Foster: “How much sap is in the thing. You do that… I know how much sap is in there. I know at 2:30 am I’m going to start letting it slow down and not burn the rig. I want some sap left when I’m done.”

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Erica: “Okay, you can go check your sap stash. What are the other six reasons you burn your stove? You know a lot of stories about why things go wrong.”

Forrest Foster: “They think they can get away from it and…I stay and wait for it to be cooked, then I go feed the cows for a while, and just before dark I come out and cover the pan…and have it clean and ready to use in the morning.

“Each batch of sap contains a different amount of sugar. One day you can boil all day and make 10 gallons. The next day you can boil all day and make 30 gallons, because you have more sugar in the thing. Mother Nature controls everything we do to create reality. And the sweeter it is, the faster you make syrup, you don’t have enough sap. And so there’s nothing you can do if you don’t have a supply of storage here handy and watch it, you’ll burn the pans.”

“You drink, tell a story, then someone else adds to a story and three pretty quick stories have passed, and you have to suck up some syrup and make sure your sap comes in.”

Forrest Foster

Erica: “OK, but what I mean here…people like to visit and drink.”

Forrest Foster: “Yeah. Oh yeah. Well, that’s one of the biggest things, it’s sugar shack parties. And time doesn’t go by like it should. I don’t have saucepan with sap in it.”

Erica: “How does the time pass?”

Forrest Foster: “You drink, tell a story, then someone else adds to a story and three pretty quick stories have passed and you have to suck up some syrup and make sure your sap gets in. My nephew turned 50 The fifth day of January Well, three or four years ago he walked in. When I light the fire, that front door will be red. I mean cherry red. He’s smoking a cigarette, he’s going open the door and throw the thing in. With his bare hands, he walks over and sticks this… he walks over here…”

Erica: “It’s the door of fire.”

Forrest Foster: “Yeah. He put his hand like that…everything is bright red. I mean it’s 267 degrees. And he did like that and all of his meat and skin got stuck on it and it sizzled like a hot dog in a frying pan. You know, he grew up around sugar. He knew. Too many beers and too much tobacco.

Forrest Foster warns of the dangers of drinking, smoking and storytelling while boiling sap.

Erica: “How much weed is smoked around…?”

Forrest Foster: “By the tons. Actually, by the tons. The boys are laughing at me. I used to go to the Orleans Commission sale. We had weekly sales. you could buy 40 pounds bananas for 10 cents a pound or a calf or a pig or an old worn boar that needed a little feeding and the sausage will get you through the winter with a pig And two of my brothers ride in the truck with me , and they started rolling their own home-rolled marijuana thing, and they smoked that thing. I rolled down my window, I wish I’d died. And he said, ‘Yeah, you got high once! It was a contact high! And it was the last trip to Orleans with me, I don’t like that kind of stuff at all.

“You know, I’ve always had pretty much every old tool I’ve ever had. They’re braces. That’s how you did. thing in a maple tree 600 times between the evening milking and the morning, your shoulder hurts.”

Erica: “OK, so it’s like an auger.”

Forrest Foster: “Yeah. That worm helps lure him into the tree…”

Erica: “The worm is also a thread…”

Forrest Foster: “Yeah. And it brings the chips back. My horses learned my voice as well as they could. Dad and I had 1,700 buckets on individual trees. He would stay in the sugar shack and boil, and I’ I’d go to every tree with two five-gallon buckets and drag them…and if I got out on the road 100 feet away I’d say, “Jeeup Dolly! Jeeup Babe!” and they would come and stop where I was. They cared, because they did it every day, and when I feed them night and morning, talk to them or clean them and I lay them down, the earth and the animals and everything and that’s… that’s the way of life.

Erica: “Year after year after year, 1,700 buckets on those trees. What do you think of the trees?”

Forrest Foster: “Keep them healthy. You know, if there’s a tree a foot across and it’s got a lot of branches and a lot of… you’ve got a good flow of sap, put two buckets on it .If you got one that’s a little tall and narrow and in a thick place in the woods there and not a lot of branches, just put a beak on it.Too much manure is too much potash.It will kill a apple orchard in three years. Maples the same way. They can hold rotten hay, rotten oat straw, all that, because it makes humus. The leaves that go back there… you see the shavings I have?. To make carbon and humus. It makes the trees edible. You want to keep them as long as you can. It’s a good match, that’s what it is. You take care of them and make them work because they also work for you all the time.Better you treat them, put some shavings and hay back in….from time to time if I I have horse manure in addition, I’ll add a little, but I don’t add cow manure, which contains too much potash or cow piss…”

“I don’t have any big ideas. I just go one more day and make some more syrup and eat some.”

Forrest Foster

Erica: “But you put a little.”

Forrest Foster: “You put on a little. It’s like I said. Take a can of beer but don’t drink a 30 pack every day. Don’t overdo it. Feed them just a little. I have ’em, it’s been 42 years, and they’re as good as when I started bleeding. There’s trees there that’s probably 250 years old. They’re still making good sap and giving a lot and still growing well. Yeah It’s a lifetime It’s your lifetime to learn all these things, and it’s a lifetime.

“See that drip?”

Erica: “Yeah.”

Forrest Foster: “It’s thaw and drop. It’ll thaw that line and I can go ahead and light the fire and it’ll come in enough to supply us.”

Erica: “So you don’t have to pour precious sap…”

Forrest Foster: “Yeah! We mustn’t waste precious sap on…”

Erica: “There are long periods of quiet where everything is fine, everything works. What are some of the big ideas you have here?”

Forrest Foster: “Put that can of milk right there and eat a jelly donut and some maple syrup. I don’t have any big ideas. I just go one more day and make some more syrup and I eat some.”

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