Tucked away on rolling hills near the Connecticut River on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, Bascom Maple Farms is one of the largest producers of high quality maple syrup in New England. To get there, visitors travel via scenic byways and dirt roads lined with rustic barns and small farms. The Bascom family has been producing maple syrup since 1853. After the Civil War, there was a maple syrup boom, helping to solidify the Bascom family trade for generations to come.
The 88 Acres team was guided on a tour of Bascom’s maple production house and an adjacent maple syrup farm by Bruce Bascom, Principal and CEO, and Arnold Coombs, of the Coombs family, one of Bascom’s house labels. Under Bruce’s direction, Bascom Maple Farms has grown from 300 acres in the 1950s to over 3,000 acres today. A seventh generation maple farmer, Arnold sold the Coombs brand to Bascom and joined the team full-time as Director of Sales and Marketing. As we began our tour, Bruce shared with our team how the industry has experienced yet another boom over the last 20 years as the American diet has trended towards natural again.
Whilst we all hold idyllic notions of maple trees being tapped by hand on vast, snow-covered New England farms, it looks a bit different today. The moose and deer still intermingle in the maple forest, but compared with the 19th century, modern technology enables more efficient, cost-effective production with tubing pipeline instead of manual tree tapping.
Why is New England a good climate for maple syrup? What's unique about the soil here to provide the right conditions for the crop?
The cold temperature of Vermont is ideal for maple trees. In fact, one in four trees in Vermont is a sugar maple. Native Americans introduced early settlers to maple syrup. When European settlers came here in the 1800s they cleared Vermont’s land for farming, thus establishing New England’s taste for this natural sweetener.
What do the various grades of maple syrup mean? Is there a difference in quality?
All maple syrup is now Grade A and while there is no difference in quality, the grades are broken down by color and maple taste. In the beginning of the season the sap produces a lighter syrup which we call Grade A Golden Color, Delicate Taste. As the season progresses, the syrup will darken in color and the maple flavor becomes more intense, hence the next two grades, Grade A Amber Color, Rich Taste and Grade A Dark Color, Robust Taste.
How is maple syrup harvested?
Maple syrup at Bascom is blended from various family farms in New England. Bascom supports these producers with education and specialized maple harvest equipment for purchase. Each winter, producers drill and tap their maple trees for about six weeks during the peak season and bring their harvest to Bascom to be distributed to partners in the food industry in bulk and in traditional small glass bottles and beige plastic jugs to consumers.
What are some challenges you encounter with maple syrup harvesting?
Maple syrup is one of the highest risk agricultural crops. The biggest challenge is a warmer winter. It remains to be seen how the crop will be impacted by climate change, but Bascom has seen temps rising two to three degrees with each passing year, forcing producers to tap earlier and earlier in the season.
Another challenge is crop price volatility, which is dependent on supply. When prices sky rocket, food manufacturers often stop buying from us and seek alternative ingredients.
How many people work for Bascom on the harvest?
We will hire on an additional 5 to 10 people during the harvest.
What happens after the maple trees are tapped? What’s the next step in the process?
The next step is to collect the sap. The sooner the sap is boiled after it is out of the tree, the better, as sap does not last long outside of the tree. Once the sap is boiled, we filter it and hot pack it in 55 Gallon Drums for storage.
What is Bascom’s farm philosophy?
Our Yankee tradition of workmanship and pride in what we do commit us to providing our customers the best quality maple products possible. We are nationally recognized for our knowledge of the maple business and participate actively in the major maple trade associations.
Because of our involvement in the maple syrup equipment business, we are aware of the latest technical advances for harvesting sap, producing syrup, packaging and distribution. Our company conducted pioneering work in the use of plastic tubing for maple sap production. In addition to our own maple orchards, we rent groves at other nearby New Hampshire locations.
What are some practices Bascom uses to encourage sustainability?
Maple syrup processing is very similar to desalination. Current production uses technology that is much more efficient, with minimal oil per gallon used per gallon of maple produced. To encourage sustainability, Bascom also reuses water from this process to clean the sugar house and the piping. Warehouses also use natural underground temps to refrigerate the maple syrup barrels after production and compressor heat is used to warm the buildings.
Ways to Enjoy Maple Syrup
What are some ways you recommend we use maple syrup in meals, snacks and desserts this season? Any staff favorites?
Cindy Finck on the Bascom team is a maple dessert hobbyist. In fact, she was preparing for a special harvest dinner when the 88 Acres team met her at Bascom Farm. Her menu included a maple cheesecake, maple and pepper seasoned steak, maple lemon drop cocktails and maple-glazed salmon. On Cindy’s recommendation, the 88 Acres team was introduced to the natural wonder that is maple cream, a pure maple sugar that is spreadable on toast or crackers. We hear the jar didn’t last the weekend.