Sun shines on pioneering solar sugarhouse

Lincoln, Vermont’s Tom Gadhue started sugaring on his own when he was 11 years old and living in Shelburne. “I got bit in the sixth grade, and this has been my love ever since,” he told me last week. He’s 54 now. “I had thirty buckets when I was a kid, and I was making the blackest syrup – but I loved it.”

As an adult, he had sugarhouses in Jeffersonville and then Huntington. He had 300 buckets in Jeffersonville, and he recalls his brother-in-law – who helped him with the sugaring – saying he was so tired from lugging the buckets through the snow to the sugarhouse that he could clip his toenails without bending over.

The very first sugaring season after Gadhue sold the operation in Huntington, he realized how much he missed it. “I remember telling my wife one evening that I really had to get back into it.”

His wife Rhonda’s response? “Fine, but I get a kitchen.” And that would be a kitchen in. . .the sugarhouse.

Tom was recalling the origins of his newest (and, he hopes, last) sugarhouse: The Solar Sweet Maple Farm high in the hills of South Lincoln, a beautiful, state-of-the art operation that is far more sugar mansion than sugar shack. Fifty-six solar panels sit atop the structure’s southern peak, generating the power 52 weeks a year that Gadhue uses almost in its entirety during the six or so weeks when he is sugaring. It is, he says, his “dream operation” – his wife’s, too, and not simply because it has that kitchen. It also has a bedroom, a fireplace and hearth, and a post and beam dining room where, last Saturday morning, he and Rhonda offered neighbors an $8 all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. Roughly 170 people came, including Lincoln’s Christine Fraioli, a self-described “Vermont pancake connoisseur.” Her verdict? “The pancakes were absolutely fantastic. The ultimate was the sourdough with blueberry compote and maple syrup. It was worth every calorie.”1902788_10152245865492118_1804780191_n

Gadhue, who owns Mountain Valley Sprinkler Systems in Williston, bought 200 acres in South Lincoln and cleared the land for the operation in 2010. He built the sugarhouse in 2011, finishing just in time to tap and boil in 2012. Last year he produced 5,000 gallons; this year, he hopes to reach 8,000, or a half-gallon for each of 16,000 taps.

The frame of the sugarhouse was once a glass-blowing studio, and most of the siding is recycled barn board. The lighting is all energy-efficient LED.

Right now, the panels power everything except for the evaporator itself. But that means they are powering the vacuums that help draw the sap to the holding tanks; that means they are powering the reverse osmosis machine that takes roughly eighty percent of the water from the sap before it even reaches the evaporator; and that means they are powering the lights and the computers and, yes, that kitchen. And Gadhue is hoping to buy an electric evaporator next year, so that he can further reduce the sugarhouse’s carbon footprint.

And the vibe of the operation? Despite the high technology, it’s every bit as warm and old-school as the friendly madness that envelops a small sugarhouse with a single dangling overhead light bulb and an evaporator that looks like it belongs in a Grimm’s fairy tale. When I asked Rhonda why they were having the pancake breakfast last Saturday, she answered instantly, “Community. We thought it would be great fun to get people up here.”

Indeed. How we sugar continues to evolve, but there are a few constants. As my friend and writer and sugarmaker John Elder has said, the sugaring season may be short, but it’s always sweet. That goes for the syrup – and the fellowship.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 16, 2014. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on April 22.) light in the ruins pb

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.