Run reflects off just fallen snow, shining into my windows and melting me out of a deep slumber. The clock reads 7:42 am, too early to be awake on a non-work day, but too late to make it worth going back to sleep.
After living in the South, getting out of bed on winter mornings when visiting my family’s home in Connecticut is extremely difficult. Just the thought of my toes touching the cold floor causes me to burrow deeper under my mountain of blankets; however, when the sweet smell of my dad’s pancakes starts swirling under my door, I brave the frigid conditions, throwing a blanket cape-like around my shoulders, leaping into my slippers and shuffling downstairs.
Seated at the breakfast table, I take a moment to admire the beautiful stack of pillowy pancakes before forking some onto my plate and diving in. I savor the first few bites of pancake perfection, but quickly realize something is missing.
“Where’s the syrup?” I ask.
By the guilty look on my brother’s face, I know he just finished it. First mission for the day: get more. A Connecticut household just isn’t complete without real New England maple syrup. A quick Internet search reveals I can buy some straight from the source at Lamothe’s Sugar House in Burlington, Connecticut, and off I go.
Entering the warm and cozy country showroom, friendly faces and samples of maple-raspberry jam, coffee, maple lollipops, warm mulled cider and maple coffee greet me. In addition to three grades of syrup, the shop sells melt-in-your-mouth Pure Maple Candy and Cream, Pure Maple Flavor Drops, Maple Walnut Caramels, Maple Salt Water Taffy and Peanut Clusters. Bakers can buy local honey or Pure Granulated Maple Sugar, which can be sprinkled on toast and ice cream or used as a white or brown sugar substitute.
“Wow, so much for just buying syrup,” I unintentionally utter aloud.
“That’s one of the things that makes us unique,” replies the woman behind the counter, who has apparently heard me. “There’s no other sugar house in the state that makes over thirty maple products. I’ll get my husband to tell you about the place. He loves to talk!”
She sends a scout who retrieve the man behind the family-owned business. The rosy-cheeked Rob Lamothe appears wearing a big grin and dusty overalls, happily offering to give me “the nickel tour.”
Lamothe produces Grade A Golden, Grade A Amber and Grade A Dark syrup as well as an assortment of maple candies and nuts. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.
Rob and his wife Jean held a self-sustaining spirit from the beginning, producing all their own food (except for rice and wheat) and independently renovating and expanding the dilapidated farm they purchased. Forty-two years ago, when they found six-to-seven taps in the kitchen drawer of the farmhouse, they decided to embark on a fun maple-syrup making family project. Knowing nothing about the process, Rob headed to the library to do some research.
“We didn’t have a pot to pee in so we started out very basic, using simple techniques and collecting sap in buckets,” he explains, before joking, “I’ll show you my computer. I carry it with me!” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pen, before smirking, “I’m old school.”
“I’m old school”, Rob exclaims showing the old-fashioned sap collection buckets. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.
Their first harvest was minimal, but the new hobby kept the family together and Rob kept tapping trees and collecting syrup after he came from his full-time aeronautics job. The number of taps grew, increasing from 13 to 35 and then 55 taps.
While the venture was successful, Rob never dreamed of selling his product commercially until he was approached by a man trudging through the mud, while tapping trees. When the man asked to buy a quart, Rob happily obliged.
“The light bulb went off and we decided to produce our product commercially,” he says.
Updating their collection procedures, today they have 5,500 taps and 25 miles (40 kilometers) of plastic tubing collecting sap in over 360 acres (146 hectares) of land. Since the sap is 98% water and only 2% sugar, one tap produces only one quart (four cups) of syrup per season; however, with this many taps, they are the largest producer of maple products in Connecticut.
The exterior of Lamothe’s Sugar House in Burlington, Connecticut- this new showroom was completely renovated in 2008. Photo courtesy of Lamothe’s Sugar House.
Turning Sap Into Syrup
The maple-sugaring season only lasts about four to six weeks, from mid-February through late March when freezing nights are followed by thawing days. “Just like cutting your finger,” the temperature difference causes the sap starts to flow. With the new system, Rob can collect the sap himself in a 54-mile (87-kilometer) circuit in three Connecticut towns, a journey he begins around 4:00 pm. With the high sugar content, the goal is to make the highly perishable sap into syrup before bedtime, even if that means staying awake until 5 am.
The process beings with filtering the sap, using UV light to kill bacteria before introducing the next step facilitated by the “Sap Brother.” Rob pauses dramatically, since this reverse osmosis machine exponentially increased the efficiency of the process.
“Buying this guy was a tipping point,” Rob recalls. “The whole family got together at one of our weekly meetings and unanimously decided to invest.”
After that purchase in 1993 there was no going back, as it allows the business to operate with its full potential. After the Sap Brother separates the sugar concentrate from water, the evaporator boils away excess water — filling the air with a sweet steamy aroma during the sugar season — until the remaining syrup is ready to be stored in stainless steel barrels.
Rob Lamothe explains how buying “the Sap Brother” reverse osmosis machine was a game changer. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.
A Special Business In More Ways Than One
In addition to the sugar business, the LaMothes sell farm-raised pork, a tradition started by Rob’s Slavic father-in-law. As with the maple syrup, Rob didn’t know anything about raising pigs when he began. Luckily, his wife knew a thing or two about curing and smoking meats. This warm, light-hearted man makes this lifestyle look easy, although Rob admits it isn’t, but he loves what he does.
“To be a farmer you’ve gotta have the grit,” he declares. “I’m 65 years old and I don’t planning on stopping. On normal days, I put my boots on at 5 am and go to work. If the Lord’s going to take me, He can come in the afternoon.”
The success of his business still surprises Rob, as after 9/11 he believed they were goners, selling a commodity nobody really needed; however, customers continued to come out of devotion to supporting local business.
“People want to make a connection to the farmers,” Rob explains. “They want to connect to local food sources. They want to know where you can go for food when the power goes out”.
Rob loves to show people around! He stands in front of the stainless steel storage containers and newspaper clippings highlight some of the accolades earned by his business. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.
For Rob too,“getting to know your clients and the community is one of the most rewarding aspects of what he does.
“In agriculture, you leave a big impression on a lot of people,” he says. “When I die, there will be quite a few who will say ‘I learned a lot from that old fart.’”
Through the years, Rob’s educated countless boy and girl scouts, several of whom have come back to visit with children of their own. He’s employed people who didn’t know how to hold a hammer, given them a sense of self-worth and independence. As I’m talking to him, he greets a woman in the other room, explaining to me how she’s a regular who continues to shop at his store despite battling two bouts of cancer. You can tell he knows her well and thinks fondly of her.
In addition to giving back to his community, Rob enhances the local environment, hoping it’ll benefit his grandchildren some day. Even though tapping doesn’t hurt the trees, Rob estimates he’s planted at least 2,000 trees over his lifetime. Because you can’t tap a tree until it’s at least forty years old he won’t reap the benefits; however, he’s happy to leave a legacy to his family.
When Rob and Jean began experimenting with making maple syrup 42 years ago, they never imagined Lamothe Sugar House would be the largest maple product producer in Connecticut. They’re proof that if you follow your heart and have family support your dreams can come true.
Even with updated machinery, Rob’s old-fashioned sense of hard work, ingenuity and perseverance creates syrup that testifies to family values. When tasting his syrup next to a mass-produced, artificial equivalent, there’s no comparison. Maybe maple syrup’s a commodity that no one really needs, but I’m willing to indulge in supporting family loyalty, teamwork and a connected community. And a little extra incentive to get up in the morning never hurt.
*Featured image courtesy of ninacoco
Contributed by guest writer Katie Foote.