WILLIAMSTOWN — It was a bitter 26 degrees on Feb. 25, 2019, at 8 p.m. and a steady, 25-mile-per-hour wind blew from the west. Sarah Lipinski was in an upstairs bedroom of her family’s 1850 farmhouse, putting her 2-year-old daughter to bed when her husband, Darryl Lipinski, rushed into the room. He had just received an urgent call from her stepmother, who lived with her father, Peter Phelps, a quarter mile away on the family’s 120-acre property. “Your dad’s barn is on fire!” Sarah Lipinski stood and looked out the window. “The whole sky was orange... [with] flames shooting up into the sky,” she said.
When the couple arrived minutes later, firetrucks lined the driveway, and the barn was too consumed by flames to save. Lipinski hugged her father, who watched from the periphery: “I’ve never seen him look so sad, ghostly. . . . We were in shock,” She remembered the alpacas, who typically sheltered in the barn. Running to check, she saw the gates to their pastures had been left open and that they had fled to the farthest pasture, where they huddled together, some of their fleece charred. As the wind gusted to 40 miles per hour, firefighters sprayed the roof of the Phelps house to help ward off flames, which loomed just 200 feet away. It took 45 minutes for the barn to be entirely consumed by the fire, and the hundreds of gallons of maple sap and syrup inside resulted in a sweet smell that mingled with that of burnt wood.
The next morning, “Everything was black and sooty,” and next to the remnants of the barn, “the trees were all burnt and singed.” While Phelps made plans to clean and hire excavators, Lipinski focused on the business. The weather forecast was for 10 days of below-freezing temperatures — conditions in which sap does not flow. Her course of action was clear: “We need to get everything up and running and operating the next 10 days if we’re going to salvage the season. . . . We need to do something right now.”
Sweet Brook Farm’s “sugar bush” comprises 40 acres of forest dominated by sugar maples farmed with 4,600 taps (one to three taps per tree) that connect to 30 miles of plastic vacuum-drawn tubing that winds through the woods like intricate spider webs. The tubing connects to a centralized pump in a deep hole at the lowest point of the farm, where the sap collects in a tank. Once the tank reaches a designated level, a vacuum pump draws the sap into a holding tank. Before the fire, that holding tank was in Phelps’s barn, leading to a reverse-osmosis machine (removing 98 percent of the water), and finally to an evaporator, where the sap was heated and reduced to a syrup. The fire destroyed the holding tank in the barn, which meant that once the temperatures rose above freezing, the sap continuously flowing from those 4,600 taps would have no place to go unless Lipinski acted fast. She also had just days to process the sap waiting in the tank deep in the ground before it went bad.
The family faced another difficult blow. Just prior to the fire, Phelps had reduced his insurance coverage to lower his premium and would therefore receive only $200,000, a fraction of the $2 million he had originally invested in the barn, inventory, and equipment, and just 25 percent of its current value. Lipinski immediately setting up a GoFundMe campaign.
The community rallied. That first morning, Jesse Guiden brought his horse trailer to transport the alpacas to next-door neighbor Elaine Neeley’s horse paddocks. Jay Galusha of Fairfields Dairy Farm (in Williamstown) offered his steel milk tanker truck to collect the unprocessed sap, and they used Rob Leab’s vacuum pump from Ioka Valley Farm (in Hancock) in a shed Dave Larabee built for them, donating his time and materials. Lucy Rollins gave the community a chance “to show how much it cares” by hosting a fund-raising potluck supper and raffle. And Sweet Brook’s most significant retail customer, Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, reassured, “We value our relationship with you. If you keep making syrup, we’re going to keep buying it from you. Take as much time as you need.” The GoFundMe campaign raised $15,000 in two weeks and provided enough money to replace much of the lost equipment. This generosity makes sense to Lipinski: “Williamstown really values their farmers. They value their farmland and open space, and they’re incredibly supportive of locally grown and produced food.”
Puritan William Phelps emigrated from England to the colonies in 1630 and was a founder of Dorchester and Boston and Windsor, Conn. In 1799, Phelps’s great-great-great-great grandson Thomas Cooley purchased the 1,000-acre parcel in Williamstown where Sweet Brook now sits, and established a dairy farm while also serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In the late 19th century, his grandson (Lipinski’s great grandfather) Cassius Daniel Phelps was the first Phelps to produce maple syrup on their land, and the evaporator and tub he used for sugaring are still in the sugar bush.
Lipinski grew up just over an hour away from Williamstown, in Schenectady, N.Y., where her father worked as a chemist for General Electric. She was a freshman in high school in 2005 when her parents moved back to her family’s land, and her father began a new career as a maple farmer. She recalls, “I always hoped that I would inherit [the farm]. And I wanted to be prepared for when I did.” She attended UMass-Amherst with a major in business so that she “could have something useful to offer to the family business.”
When Sarah Phelps married Darryl Lipinski in 2014, aside from helping out at the occasional farmers’ market, she didn’t have much to do with the farm. When the couple moved into the property’s farmhouse in 2016, she worked in accounting, and he worked as an assistant physical therapist. They planned to slowly learn the maple sugaring business with an eye toward the future. Darryl Lipinski helped Peter Phelps and quickly learned Sweet Brook’s operations. Lipinski extols the critical role her husband played in the couple’s eventual stewardship of the business: “I’ve always wanted to be back on the farm, but none of this would have happened if I didn’t meet and marry him because he can do everything, literally, everything.” In 2018, the couple launched Sweet Brook Beef, raising grass-fed and -finished Black Angus beef cattle.
When the barn burned down months later, Peter Phelps was 56 years old, and his business was thriving. He, his daughter, and son-in-law had only just started discussing his eventual retirement in five years. The fire hastened that plan. Lipinski recalls her father’s words: “the tubing still exists in the woods. The pump house still exists. There’s still a tractor. If you can make something of what is still standing after this fire, that existing infrastructure is yours.” She says, “Our five-year plan turned into a five-day plan.”
They both still had full-time day jobs, so farm work was done in early morning and at night. Darryl Lipinski dealt with the taps, tubing, and pumps, regularly walking through the forest to listen for the whistling sounds that indicate a line leak most often caused by squirrels drawn to the sweet maple-tasting plastic. Sarah Lipinski focused on accounting, pricing, filing taxes, and marketing. In the end, her fast action did salvage the 2019 season: they produced two-thirds of their 1,200-gallon yearly average. She made other changes to the business, returning the alpacas to her mother, who lives nearby, adding the sale of Sweet Brook Beef, and accepting credit cards at farm markets. That 2019 summer, Sweet Brook tripled the previous summer’s sales.
Because of COVID, sales plummeted during the summer of 2020; however, 2021 has been a banner year, and Sweet Brook’s sales have doubled since 2019. They’ve kept pre-pandemic clients like Gillette Stadium, Williams College, and SoCo Creamery and added new ones like Ski Bum Rum in North Adams and Coyote Flaco Restaurant in Williamstown.
The Lipinskis opened a new Sweet Brook farm store on Sept. 3, right next to their farmhouse. They offer Sweet Brook Maple Syrup, Maple Cream, and a variety of products from local purveyors, including R&G Hand Crafted Cheeses from Troy, N.Y., SoCo Creamery ice cream, CAVU Hemp CBD products from Cheshire, and from Williamstown, Bigfoot Farm vegetables and Big Sky Berlin Farm cut flowers. On Tuesdays, they offer fresh bread from Earth Sky Time Community Farm and Hearth in Manchester, Vt.
As you approach Sweet Brook farm by car, you may see the very stream that inspired its name as it passes under Woodcock Road. Turning into the entrance, you’ll see a white split rail on the left side of a long driveway, alongside which horses roam, and at the end, the small building that houses the new farm store. You’ll exit your car not far from the towering 350-year old sugar maple tree that Lipinski believes may be the oldest in the country. There are stunning views no matter where you stand: the farm rests in a valley flanked to the east by Mount Greylock and the Taconic Range on the west. This land gives Sweet Brook’s maple syrup a unique, smooth taste and reddish hue, in contrast to the flavor and golden yellow color found in Vermont or in Canadian syrup. Lipinski’s father, a chemist, theorizes that these qualities result from the limestone that forms the bedrock in this region, unlike the granite found in Vermont and Canada. Much like the soil in a vineyard affects the taste of its wine, this “terroir” affects the syrup’s taste. In this picturesque valley, there are several barns, vestiges of dairy farming, some on the road to restoration, others decommissioned. Still more are used for storage, such as the weathered white barn with a slate roof and two rusted aluminum cupolas where the Lipinskis store pallets of bottled maple syrup. Beyond, more than a dozen cows graze in a pasture alongside bales of hay, and finally, a dense forest with an ungroomed cross country ski trail.
Sarah Lipinski’s dream is for Sweet Brook Farm to become an agritourism destination, where locals and tourists come to “enjoy this beautiful space.” A farm brewery. A bed and breakfast. Camping. Skiing. This eighth-generation Phelps farmer wants her family’s land to endure, and she intends to shepherd it toward that future. “[Our] history is my whole reason for wanting to do this,” she said. “I want to maintain that legacy.”
Visit Sweet Brook Farm’s retail store during daylight hours at 207 Woodcock Road, Williamstown, or online at www.sweetbrookfarms.com
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Instagram at @jocelynruggiero1 or Twitter at @jocelynruggiero.