MAYNARD — On cold weekend mornings, homes around New England fill with the smell of pancakes on a buttered griddle, sometimes accompanied by smoky bacon, typically served with maple syrup, often from Vermont. But local maple syrup in Metro West Boston? Actually, yes.
For 30 years, Maynard resident Ron Kay, a North Country native, has been tapping his town’s maple trees and boiling down sap in his own sugar house. His bottles humbly read Maynard Maple. “I’m a one-man operation,” says Kay, 68, who is retired. “I do maybe 130 gallons of maple syrup a season.”
It’s a small batch and a painstaking process. Every 40 gallons of sap that Kay collects boils down to one gallon of maple syrup. Each tree can yield between 10 and 15 gallons of sap per season, and Kay has about 500 taps in town.
During sugaring season, which runs from late February through late March, Kay hauls gallons of sap from buckets hung on residents’ trees to a storage tank in the bed of his red pickup truck. (Residents are mostly willing to let him tap their maples.) In the sugar bushes — larger plots of sugar maples — Kay pumps sap to his truck from an intricate labyrinth of collection tubes wound around the trees’ trunks and limbs. The lines require constant maintenance because of the cold and the squirrels, who chew through the tubes to get at the sweet stuff. Squirrels are frustrating. “Up north they call them tree rats,” says Kay.
Once the day’s sap is collected, it’s back home to the sugarhouse, where nighttime temperatures plunge and Kay stands watch over the boiler, purifying and bottling maple syrup until late into the night. “Sometimes I’ll be out there until 1:30 in the morning, and my wife will come out and yell, ‘When are you coming to bed?’ ”
Despite his gray hair and pained knees, Kay speaks of sugaring with the same boyish enthusiasm that moved him to tap his first tree when he was 7. It was March 1954, and Kay and his twin brother, Richard, called Dickie, were living in Lancaster, N.H., about 170 miles north of Maynard. The boys followed an unsuspecting boy into the woods and watched him tap a sugar maple. Intrigued, they asked him to show them how, and the twins were soon boiling down sap in the great tradition of New England’s maple sugarers. “I think my dad helped us set up the stove, but we did it pretty much on our own,” says Kay.
He took a long break from his hobby after high school. He served in the Air Force, ran 18 Boston Marathons (logging a mind-blowing 2:34 time), and eventually settled in Maynard in 1982, where he worked for Digital for 21 years. Soon after he and his wife, Ruth, bought their home, Kay noticed the town’s abundant sugar maples and decided to revive his childhood pastime.
Today he sells to local farmstands and customers also order Kay’s maple by contacting him through Facebook. Quart jugs cost about $24.
Although small-scale sugarers like Kay contribute just a fraction of the national maple syrup supply, maple in New England is big business. According to the USDA, New England produced more than 2 million gallons of maple syrup in 2014 — about 65 percent of the nation’s home-sourced maple. Vermont produced 42 percent, Maine 17 percent, and Massachusetts 2 percent. About 60 percent of maple syrup consumed in the United States is imported from Canada.
The numbers are impressive, although Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, says global warming is affecting the industry.
“The maple season begins about a week earlier than it did 50 years ago, and it ends about 10 days earlier,” says Perkins. “Over the next 100 years, it will likely get to the point where commercial syrup production will be difficult.” At the same time, increased demand is driving new commercial technology and higher yields from each tree.
Kay attributes the demand to the public’s healthier eating habits. But for him and other New Englanders who grew up on homegrown syrup, health benefits are far down the list of excuses to indulge.
As he sips coffee inside Maynard’s Boston Bean House, he points to his cup and says, “Sometimes I put maple syrup in there.”
Maynard Maple syrup is available at
and at Bolton Spring Farm, 149 Main St., Bolton, 978-779-2898;
Cucurbit Farm, 32 Parker St., Acton, 978-263-4506; Marble Hill Farm, 29 Great Road, Stow, 978-897-3622; and Harvard General Store, 1 Still River Road, Harvard, 978-430-0062.
Lorne Bell can be reached at email@example.com.