Chepachet Farms keeps business alive with creative entrepreneurial spirit
By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor
CHEPACHET, R.I. — “The buds are getting heavy,” notes a recent visitor to Chepachet Farms, eyeing the tight red nubs on the branches of the maple trees that edge the barnyard.
It’s Saturday, March 21, the first full day of spring, but only the second time this syrup season that owner Neil Esposito has had enough sap to keep the tanks full and flowing over the fires in his sugarhouse.
Depending on the sugar content in a season’s sap, it takes an average of 40 gallons to produce a gallon of syrup. Trees need cold nights and warm days to set the sap rising from roots to branches. If the weather cooperates, runs can begin as early as late January or February.
This winter’s deep snows, frigid days and icy grip mean a harvest so late it will not last long. Once temperatures spike and buds swell, sap turns milky and sours, and the run is done.
Esposito boiled for the first time a week ago. Today’s morning snow and temperatures locked in the mid-30s means it’s past noon before the taps on the buckets by the house begin to drip. He’ll have enough sap to boil again tomorrow. To date, he’s collected 625 gallons of sap and made 13 gallons of maple syrup.
“You have to make the best of what you have, “ Esposito said.
He and his wife, Jody, began farming their 5 acres on Tourtellot Hill Road in 1993. Both Chepatchet natives, they began dating in high school, but first met in kindergarten.
“I remember him because he was always getting in trouble.” Jody said with a laugh.
Their syrup business started with 25 taps and a 2-foot-by-2-foot evaporator homemade from old workings, and has grown to include taps across their own and a neighbor’s 240 acres, to 300 trees in all. A 2-foot-by-6-foot automatic reversible flow evaporator is their latest technological advancement, but wood still fuels its fires.
Sap, once collected from buckets in the sugarbush using horse-drawn wagons, is pumped through plastic tubing strung between trees and into waiting tanks.
Farmers, Neil included, consider syrup making as much a labor of love as a chore in a spell between seasons that produces mostly mud. But work or pleasure, the Espositos capitalize on the potential of the crop.
An operation that promises a sampling of its sweets attracts visitors the way the last run of sap draws flies. The farm’s website and Facebook page spread the word well beyond the neighborhood, bringing some 60 people to tour the farm on a recent Saturday.
While Neil stands watch engulfed in a fog of maple steam over the roiling liquid darkening in his evaporator, Jody guides guests along the trail and up to the sugarhouse, explaining the nature of sap, the process of tapping and boiling, and grades of syrup.
The cooler the weather, the lighter the grade. Warm temperatures promote a buildup of niter, a mineral in the sap that produces darker syrup with a stronger flavor as the season progresses. Runs go from Grade A light amber early on to medium amber or dark, she tells the group.
Later, back inside the farm’s gathering room, guests sample delectables that Jody concocts to augment syrup sales: cinnamon and vanilla infused syrups, maple walnut syrup, maple peanut brittle, maple cotton candy and maple syrup maple vinaigrette. Her products also can be found at area specialty shops.
Equipped with a culinary arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Jody engineers recipes and delicacies from the farm’s bounty.
Like most of this era’s farmers, the couple’s livelihood depends on being resourceful entrepreneurs. The Espositos fertilize their agricultural enterprise with a mix of educational, recreational and therapeutic activities that bring an audience year-round for what marketers have labeled “agritainment.”
The farm and its gathering room, with its welcoming tables and wood stove, are available for special events and parties. In the different seasons, there are hayrides and sleigh rides, pumpkin picking, children’s nature camps, and programs for senior citizens, clubs and organizations.
Chickens, horses, cows, pot-belly pigs, llamas, sheep and goats are part of a full petting zoo that gives children and adults alike a chance to interact with animals and gain a sense of a working farm.
And all of Chepatchet Farms’ hands are continuously working.
Jody is out to the barns to tend the animals an hour before dawn and at day’s end. In between, she manages events and operations, as well as the household.
Between tapping and boiling, Neil and his assistants, Jim Wood of Lincoln and Dan Lefebvre, harvest next year’s firewood for the furnace, stoves and the sugarhouse. After plowing and planting, there’ll be mowing to collect the 5,000 bails of hay that feed the animals, and then fall harvest.
Farming in the best of times is a 24/7 job dependent on the moods of Mother Nature. By this time last year, sap season was over, with only 25 to 35 gallons of syrup to show for it. The year before produced closer to 100.
Neil is a member of the Rhode Island Maple Syrup Producers Association (RIMSPA). Formed in 2012 and based in Ashaway, the organization works to educate the public about process and product, and preserve and promote the industry. Rhode Island is the last state in New England to associate producers. Among its 16 member farms, most in South County, Neil counts himself fifth largest in the state.
Lois Buck, RIMSPA secretary and wife to its president, Tom Buck, better known for Uncle Buck’s Sugarhouse, said this year’s season is three weeks behind its usual arrival.
Neil hopes to collect enough sap before the last weekend in March to have vats boiling for the farm’s Easter Sunday Extravaganza, with horse-drawn hay rides, a camp fire, tapping demonstrations and an egg hunt.
Jody is hosting a Blackstone Culinaria food tour this week that will feature a maple-themed menu, including bacon-wrapped pork loin roast with a maple glaze, a mixed green salad dressed with Chepatchet Farms Maple Vinaigrette, grilled vegetables marinated in the vinaigrette, whole wheat maple doughnuts, maple walnut cookies and maple sundaes.
“You have to use each season to your advantage,” Neil said.
Jody estimated that maple syrup production and its related activities and products account for as much as a third of the farm’s annual income.
As welcome as higher temperatures would be in the coming week, it could well put an end to syrup making for 2015.
“The weather is supposed to turn warmer, “ Neil said with a sigh last Saturday. “But if it does, we’ll be done.”
But by Monday, Jody happily reported that, “The trees were running yesterday and Neil’s actually started producing. Hallelujah!”
There could still be a few strong weeks left to their liquid gold’s flow.