words // Lesley Snyder
photo // Craig Thomas
Kevin Harrison gestures toward a painting in his Milton sugarhouse. It hangs starkly alone—independent— introduced only by its golden frame. It’s not the prettiest painting, he chuckles, but it epitomizes his family business. In blustery streaks of whites and pinks, children sled beneath a bright sky. Proud, sleek wind turbines neighbor a thriving forest and red-roofed house. The snowscape captures the romance of sugar shacks, family snow play, and the frosty air of Vermont winter. The brushstrokes are rough, but the sentiment is kind. It’s the past and the future, home and heart—it’s Georgia Mountain Maples.
Sugar maker Georgia Mountain Maples (GMM) is the latest venture of friends and family of Harrison Concrete and Redi-Mix Corp., a 100-employee-strong operation responsible for such projects as the University of Vermont’s James M. Jeffords Hall and the Pump House Indoor Water Park at Jay Peak Resort. From this successful family-owned and operated business emerges another—and it’s homemade from the ground up. Everything from the labyrinth of sap tubing to the state-of-the-art sugarhouse was constructed by the close-knit group of relatives and employees. Now entering its third year, GMM aims to surpass its 2013 batch, which capped off at 21,000 gallons of syrup. The two seasonal industries mesh together seamlessly; sugaring season picks up when the weather is no longer kind to the concrete business. Most of the sugarhouse staff is a crossover of concrete workers, 10 to 12 of which they would have had to lay off if it weren’t for the now year-round employment opportunity. These guys may not all be blood-related, but syrup is thicker than water.
The sugarhouse opened its doors in 2012. “It should have started 10 years ago, but I didn’t listen to my father,” admits Kevin, president and one of three owners of GMM. Rick Fielding and Marty Rabtoy, Kevin’s brother-in-law, are also part-owners. His father, Jim Harrison, owns a large portion of Georgia Mountain, which they were using primarily for hunting and logging when Jim came up with the game-changing idea. A forest of maples perched atop a steep hill—it made sense to sugar.
No one at GMM had experience sugaring in this magnitude, so they enlisted the help of fellow logger and sugar maker Doug Edwards. At first Doug was just thinning the forest, but it wasn’t long before he and his crew were overseeing the entire start-up, “from pipe and tubing installation to layout and construction of the new sugarhouse facility, to actually boiling with us for almost an entire year,” Kevin recalls. “I believe in our first year, Doug spent more time in our sugarhouse than at either one of his own two sugarhouses.” His words are sung in humble gratitude; Doug’s willingness to share is rare. As in any industry, there are producer-specific methods of sugaring that are kept bottled.
Undeveloped Georgia Mountain afforded the Harrisons a clean slate, an advantage in the maple industry, says Nick Lemieux, GMM’s manager of operations. Many sugar makers build add-ons to pre-existing sugarhouses, spreading the equipment over two levels. The crew created its facility entirely in-house, from harvesting timber to hanging the copper maple leaf chandelier. The result is a spacious, one-floor operation for maximum efficiency and productivity. Even their sap supply is parked out back. (Often sugarhouses aren’t located amongst their maples.) “We currently do not truck any sap,” reports Kevin. “All 75,000 taps either run or are pumped directly to the sugarhouse. Some of the sap is pumped over miles, up 800-foot vertical lifts.”
Innovative devices, like the reverse osmosis machine (R.O.), are instrumental to their high level of production, says Nick. The R.O., which reduces the sap’s water content before boiling, compresses what used to be a day-long process into what seems like mere moments. The assembly of cutting-edge equipment makes the process nearly hands-free, thanks to several big-name companies. “Almost all of our sugaring supplies and equipment are CDL brand … They have helped us tremendously along the way,” Kevin credits. There isn’t an old-fashioned bucket in sight. Sap is collected by a network of CDL’s pressurized blue tubing and vacuum pumps, thanks to invaluable assistance from F.W. Webb Company.
A quick scan of the forest only begins to bring the massive web of pipelines into focus, like IVs attached to a cluster of willing patients. One might wonder if sugaring wounds the trees. Rest assured, a tapped maple continues to live a long, healthy life, capable of being utilized for decades. “Sugaring is so environmentally friendly,” Kevin informs. “It’s a way of life handed down generation to generation. It has to be one of the most responsible, sustainable ways of making a living. We are tapping trees, some of which are hundreds of years old that have been tapped year after year. What business in today’s world can say that they are still using their great-grandparents’ anything at work? Some, but not many.”
The Georgia Mountain sugar makers work to preserve and perfect this age-old tradition with contemporary technology. Even though the taps have only been running for a couple years, GMM already made some jet-setting changes. The sap’s most magical stop is at the evaporator, which boils the sugary concentrate into syrup. This beastly machine received a unique overhaul thanks to Vermont Gas Systems. “We’re very excited to be boiling with something other than fuel oil,” Kevin relates. “We’ve recently converted the CDL rig from an oil burner to natural gas fired … We like the idea of a cleaner burning, more reliable energy source.” The practice is a brief few years old. GMM’s 6’x16’ evaporator is the only one of its size running on natural gas, says Nick. There are a handful of smaller gas-heated rigs in Vermont—maybe a dozen more across the country.
By December 2012, the Harrisons weren’t only utilizing cleaner energy, they were producing it. After years of proposals and permits, they tapped into yet another local, abundant resource: wind. Georgia Mountain is now home to the Georgia Mountain Community Wind project, a partnership between Jim Harrison and David Blittersdorf, CEO of AllEarth Renewables. A four-turbine, 10-megawatt project shares the skyline with the generations-old maple forest: tradition and modernization in one glance. All output is received by Burlington Electric Department customers within the community, which powers, on average, more than 4,200 households.
Their passion isn’t sugarcoated. Kevin explains, “Tradition, family, friends, and nature are all values that sugaring and GMM are built around, both figuratively and literally … using sustainable, responsible practices from the bottom of Georgia Mountain all the way to the top, under the wind turbines producing clean, renewable energy.”
It’s no secret that Vermont hoists the sugar maple up on a pedestal—the state tree and state quarter both tap into the area’s most iconic and romantic industry. Vermont leads in U.S. production, generating 40.6 percent of the country’s maple syrup in 2013. “It has taken literally decades of hard work and commitment from generations before us to build such a strong, reliable, quality product,” Kevin commends. “They are the ones that built the vehicle for all of us current producers to drive.” While each sugar maker bottles his or her own syrup recipe, everyone is contributing to the market of one product: Vermont Maple Syrup.
Georgia Mountain has been known to make walk-in visitors feel like one of the family. They recently constructed a kitchen inside the sugarhouse so they can treat guests to breakfast. It’s now up and running, and they’ll be serving hungry diners with the help of the Abbey Restaurant on March 16, 22 and 23. While the guys are treated to meals fairly often, sometimes the one manning the stove ends up preparing food for everyone, including lucky visitors. “That’s what it’s all about,” Kevin affirms: complete strangers coming together. This year’s statewide Open House Weekend is March 22 and 23; the family is prepping for a day of food, maple samples, and, if weather cooperates, front row seats to full sugarhouse operations.
What it boils down to is that the Georgia Mountain crew has the best kind of job. Coupled with working alongside family and friends, sugaring offers a meditative workspace in a world of hyperconnectivity. It’s the magic of Mother Nature and the sustainability of sugaring that inspires Kevin. “When I walk up to a maple tree that is over a hundred years old and I’m about to tap it,” he reflects, “I can’t help but think about how many times before me someone was standing in the exact same spot about to do the same thing as I am—and maybe thinking the same thing.”