When New Hampshire author Douglas Whynott began what would be three years following Bruce Bascom to research The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest, he had no idea one of those years would include the warmest, weirdest and worst month for maple syrup ever.
“It was the warmest March — 14,000 temperature records were broken in 2012,” Whynott said in a phone interview.
The three years were full of surprises for Whynott, who initially was uncertain as to whether the Northeast maple syrup industry had enough plot and conflict for a whole book. At one point, he changed publishers because of this.
Not only did his research occur during one of the most notable months for producers — raising the questions of how climate change is threatening the iconic New England treat — but during those years, there was also a huge theft in the Quebec Federation’s syrup warehouse, a “controversial organization” in the syrup business that sets syrup prices each year.
It was also a big time for Bruce Bascom, the central character in the book.
“I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to write the story,” Whynott said.
Bascom, a Maple Hall of Famer whose farm in Acworth is the biggest maple syrup producer in the state, boiling 80,000 gallons of sap daily during the season, was in the midst of a huge industry development during Whynott’s writing. In 2010, he built a new complex building with a warehouse that could store almost 300,000 cubic feet of syrup.
“It was enough space to hold about a third of the entire U.S. crop. He went from being in the second tier of companies to becoming the biggest,” Whynott said.
The book follows not only Bascom Maple Farms, but also the process of producing, from the first tappings in February to the biology that makes syrup possible and the grading that happens as it’s bottled. It also traces the big changes in the industry, from buckets to vacuum pumps, quaint enterprise to modern industry in Acworth.
In a timely release, Whynott will talk about his book, The Sugar Season, right in the midst of it, at the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene on Sunday, March 16, at 1 p.m. and at Gibson’s Bookstore on Wednesday, April 2, at 7 p.m.
Whynott, author of many other nonfiction books about New England culture, including Following the Bloom about the migratory beekeeping business and Giant Bluefin about the New England bluefin harpoon fishing business, was initially drawn to the maple industry because of reports in 2011 about how the Asian long-horned beetle was destroying maple trees in western Massachusetts. So he called the Bascoms for their insight on the matter.
As it turned out, the Asian long-horned beetle wasn’t so much of an issue. It had been quarantined. But Bascom had other things to talk about.
“The first time I visited him, after the initial phone conversation, we talked for three hours. … This man has more verbal energy than anyone I know,” Whynott said. “He kept telling me that there’s a lot more to the maple industry than people know. … He loves the maple industry, and he seemed to know everything about it. From the standpoint of a writer, he was a great source.”
The Sugar Season is not all about science and business. Whynott, who lives in Langdon and teaches writing at Emerson College, keeps the book interesting with a family narrative, told by Bruce Bascom. He talked to many other sugar farmers in New Hampshire, as well.
Whynott wanted to tell the story of the rapidly changing maple business in a way that was informative but fun to read, which was why finding a likeable and colorful character was so important. It’s how he writes all of his books; he earned a journalism degree and an MFA in fiction writing with the intent to use this style in telling real stories, particularly those that so highly define New England.
“Is there really any other flavor like maple that comes from North America? It originated here. It’s the iconic flavor of this culture,” Whynott said.
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.