What goes into making the top organic brand of pure maple syrup? “Sustainable forestry. We’re good farmers. That makes good syrup,” says Arnold Coombs of Coombs Family Farms.
Coombs is more than a little familiar with the Iroquois concept of seventh generation — that what we do must sustain us not just now but for the well-being of the seventh generation to come. He’s a seventh generation farmer. His family’s commitment to maple dates back to the mid-1800s and one of the farm’s sugar maples dates back well beyond that.
“It’s behind the house where we grew up; it’s 21 feet in circumference, with shaggy, shaggy bark, more than you see on a younger maple. The burls on the side are pretty gnarly,” says Coombs. “It’s over 300 years old. Think about it — it was around before the founding of our nation.”
It still produces sweet sap. “Trees,” says Coombs, “are long term.” Especially when they’re grown sustainably. The family chose organic certification back in the ’80s when they realized “there was a market. We didn’t have to change what we did, we were already behaving that way. Let’s sell organic. That’s what it is.”
“For me, it’s a level of satisfaction, knowing you’re doing it the right way,” says Coombs. “I like doing things the right way. My father, my family, they’re not glorified I-want-to-save-the-Earth people, they want what’s right for the farm.” In the case of Coombs Family Farms, though, what’s right for the farm is right for the Earth. “It’s not that much of a juggling act for a sugar maker.”
Maple, you could say, is in Coombs’ blood. “It was so embedded in me and I didn’t realize it.” He grew up hanging out in his father’s sugar house, walking to the family candy kitchen up the road where he’d walk in and be greeted with the words dear to a boy’s heart — “Hi, Arnold, have a piece of candy.”
Coombs was eight when he tapped his first sugar maple. He did it the way his father had taught him, the way it was done back then, with a metal spout and bucket. Today Coombs and the small independent farmers he sources from tap using low-impact vacuum plastic tubing and what are known as health spouts. This may lack the rustic romance of the traditional way, but it’s organic, kinder to trees and more energy efficient.
This is a sweet time for maple growers — or it should be. It’s sugaring time, when the trees are tapped and the sap is boiled to make maple syrup and maple sugar candy. It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup, so every drop counts. While some maple farmers are alarmed the mild New England winter will hamper production, Coombs isn’t worried. “We’ll get sap,” he says. “It’s been incredibly warm — it blows me away — but we’ll still have a decent sugaring season.”
The sugaring is easier, the tapping more sustainable, the passion effortless. The challenge Coombs faces is making consumers understand the value of pure maple, what makes it different than cheap, sweet faux stuff. “The majority of people just don’t get it.”
If you’ve been raised on artificial glug, the true flavor of maple comes as a surprise. Along with the sweet are earthy notes and a hint of nutmeg. That’s what makes maple a perfect partner for nuts, fruit and for roasting with root vegetables.
Coombs is a little hazy on geneology, but believes it was Asa Coombs who started the family maple business. What he’s sure of is how Asa or any of his ancestors would feel about artificial maple syrup. “Thinking back to that time, there wasn’t much of anything artificial. What’s the point? Why would you do that? There’s the real stuff, why would you want fake? We can say that about a lot of stuff today.”
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