BRISTOL, Vt. – The old farmhouse had been condemned. Non-livable, local officials had declared.
The out buildings — scattered across more than 300 acres hard by the western edge of the Green Mountains — had fallen in on each other in heaps of weather-beaten barn board.
Most bankers took one look at the place and the young couple seeking to resurrect it and drew identical conclusions: Impossible.
But here’s what Trent and Abby Roleau saw: A diamond in the rough. Lots of hard work. A reasonable business plan. And their young family’s future.
“The town of Bristol’s slogan is ‘Gateway to the Green Mountains,’ ’’ Trent Roleau, 28, told me the other day as he squinted into an early springtime’s afternoon sun. “So this was the Gateway Farm.’’
“Figuratively, too,’’ his 26-year-old wife and the mother of their three young children added. “It’s the gateway to a lot of things for us.’’
“Yeah, the gateway to our dreams,’’ her husband said.
Those sepia-toned dreams give way to reality’s more unforgiving light this week as Vermont’s sugaring season slips into high gear with steam rising over sugarhouses across the state — sugarhouses like the new one hewn out of white pine that Trent Roleau and a crew of six helpers put up near the old farmhouse in the early days of last December.
The newest entrants into the state’s maple syrup industry, which pumps more than $330 million a year into Vermont’s economy, are the former kids who raised animals, raced dirt bikes, and fell in love with a lifestyle without desks, conference rooms, or time clocks — except for the inexorable one tended by Mother Nature.
“I knew that I was going to be – in one way, shape or form — involved in agriculture because I loved animals,’’ Abby said. “I loved being outdoors. I grew up in a family of six and we did it all together. I just enjoyed it so much I didn’t have any interest in anything else.’’
“Failure is not an option,’’ Trent said. “That’s how we both were raised. If there is a failure, you’re going to work around it and make sure there is no failure.’’
Actually, that is the precise attitude he assumed when he first asked a 16-year-old Abby Scholten for a date in June 2008. And she — following her mother’s advice to play hard to get — turned him down flat.
He persisted, suggesting a hike five months later in nearby Deer Leap overlooking Bristol, and a courtship blossomed.
The couple married in 2012, just before Abby began her final year at the University of Vermont, where, within months a senior project required a business plan based in reality.
She had one. “I said, ‘Well, I guess this is as real as you can get.’ ’’
Here’s what she was thinking: That old farm, the one along Route 116 just north of Bristol’s small-and-charming commercial center? I want to turn that into a profitable enterprise.
The UVM panel of experts — mostly bankers — was, to say the least, skeptical.
“The numbers were based on Trent building everything and us pretty much doing everything on our own,’’ Abby Roleau said. “Which the banks did not like.’’
But one did. And a loan, facilitated by the Vermont Economic Development Authority, came through. They paid $180,000 for 325 acres in April of 2014.
Before that, Trent had worked in construction and Abby held a full-time job at an agricultural lending institution.
And then, just like that, they were farmers, working in the shadow of a nearly mile-high mountain studded with maple trees whose sweet sap will help determine their future.
“It was a lot for us,’’ Abby said. “We had nothing — well, just a little. We had nothing in our names except for a couple of bank accounts. We had just graduated college so we had a bunch of debt. The bank was willing to give us the money and my husband was willing to build a house. So we were like: Let’s do it!’’
All of that explains why Trent Roleau these days is checking miles of plastic tubing that carries the sap from his trees and into his sugarhouse. Pesky squirrels who like to gnaw on those lines have to be dealt with. Water-cooled vacuum pumps need to be attended to.
He’s got 11,500 taps in these woods, part of an investment of $90,000 in equipment. There’s a 10,000-gallon silo tank for raw storage. There’s a reverse osmosis machine that draws water out of the sap. Stainless steel pans sit on top of an arch, or firebox, and Roleau uses a hard-wood fire to evaporate the remaining water, thicken the sap, and caramelize the sugar. His goal this season? Fifty-five hundred gallons.
“Sometimes we boil all night,’’ he tells me as we climb through his sugarhouse. “Sugaring is one month of nonstop work.’’
Work that begins now. With the approaching warmer weather, the sap is ready to run.
“I live by it,’’ Trent said of his maple syrup product. “I would shower in it if I could. I put it in my coffee. We put it in everything we can.’’
There is something romantic about this sugaring business. And something deceptive, too.
It’s like writing about a young couple opening a quaint country inn. You might see the four-poster beds, and linen-covered dining room tables, and the breakfast buffet of warm cranberry muffins and hot hazelnut coffee. The balky plumbing, the leaky roofs, and the unforgiving loan payments are invisible to you.
Behind all that sweet syrup about to pour out of the Gateway Farm is a young mother, Abby Roleau, who is up at night, scouring the Internet in search of markets.
She’s helping in the sugarhouse, and raising three kids under the age of 5.
“It’s not as easy as we thought it was going to be,’’ she said.
And when Trent collapses in bed at night — all 6-foot-5, 255 pounds of him — there’s still time to stare at the ceiling, wondering how it’s all going to work.
“The biggest thing is we have money obligated for every part of it,’’ he said. “All winter long we’re putting stuff up and installing what we have. You can sit and think at night that, oh yeah, we’re going to put it another 7,500 taps. And then it comes time to do it and you have to run in the woods and make sure the vacuum is good and then you have to come in here and boil.’’
But Trent Roleau is smiling as he describes the challenges ahead of him. As a kid, he stood next to his father, who made maple syrup as a side hobby. He was his father’s helper then. Now, the roles are reversed.
“I’m kind of jealous,’’ 64-year-old Bill Roleau said. “I wish I had the opportunity when I was their age. Now, I’m his helper. I come in in the morning and ask: ‘What are we going to do today?’ I’m positive it’s going to work out. He’s got to keep working, but that’s how he is.’’
The son inherited the father’s work ethic. His sense of optimism, too.
“I try not to stress about it,’’ Trent told me. “It doesn’t do us any good. It’s just tension. If I see a pessimist walk through my door, I’ll tell them I do not like that. One guy says, ‘You’ll never get this done,’ or ‘This is going to be a lot of work for you.’ And every time somebody says that, it’s our goal to prove them wrong. One of the biggest things is that I’m very optimistic.’’
He’s got a sturdy partner in a wife who grew up on a Vermont dairy farm with chickens, cows, and pigs — a farm where Abby’s mom still makes cheese in nearby Weybridge.
As we spoke, their kids — Sophia, 4½, Kennett, 2½, and 5-month-old Bradley — seemed as at home in the new sugarhouse as kids in a candy store. Which it kind of is.
“I grew up just loving my parents’ lifestyle on the farm and all the responsibilities and opportunities that it gave me,’’ Abby Roleau said. “I want to be able to give that to my kids, too. I hope that they enjoy this. And, if they don’t, that’s OK. I just hope they appreciate what it has to offer.’’
And what is that? Something so sweet.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.