SACO — There’s smoke puffing from the chimney of the little building across the lane from the barn, and a couple of young men are chopping wood in the yard. Inside, another fellow, Stephen, is keeping an eye on the fire and on the maple sap bubbling away in the stove-top evaporator. Some ducks quack in the yard, and a goose honks nearby.

Although it felt like late winter on Wednesday at Sweetser in Saco, with an icy breeze grabbing hats and chilling fingers ”“ the calendar insists it’s spring. Students who attend classes here are taking part in maple sugaring. The students tap the maple trees on the Moody Street school campus, using both the traditional tap-and-bucket method along with a newer method with taps and lots of blue tubing. Then they gather the sap and set about to make what folks, particularly New Englanders, say is one of the most delightful forms of sweetness: Maple syrup.

As Hunter and Cole (whose last names are withheld for privacy reasons) take turns chopping wood, Stephen explains the syruping process and demonstrates how to use a refractometer ”“ an instrument syrupmakers use to measure the sugar content in the sap.

He splashes a bit of sap on the instrument and then raises it to eye level, and peers through it to take a reading. The sugar content in Wednesday’s batch, boiling gently in the evaporator, is between 2 and 3 percent. It must be 66.56 percent to be considered syrup, Stephen explains.

Farm teacher and manager Julia Birtolo said making syrup from sap can take “a good 10 hours,” in some cases. The students at Sweetser have been making syrup for several years as part of the curriculum ”“ and a popular one at that. Stephen has become so adept at running the sugarhouse, he can do so on his own, Birtolo said.

While commercial and family-operated sugarhouses in York County and throughout Maine are opening for Maine Maple Weekend events today and Sunday, the syrup made at Sweetser ”“ three or four gallons so far ”“ is used on site, reserved for the school’s culinary arts program, and some is eagerly snapped up by staff and students, said Birtolo.

When asked what he liked about syrup, Cole was quick with his answer: “I like the taste,” he said.

Syrup-making is just part of the farm curriculum, which also includes tending to the animals like a hen with her chickens, a sheep called “Sugar” and her lambs, “Peaches and Cream,” and cows “Jumper” and “Cable.” The program teaches skills like taking initiative and getting along with others as well as subjects like math, said Birtolo, where practical hands-on learning can make understanding fractions, for example, a lot easier for some students.

The School at Sweetser offers special education, helping youth overcome behavioral and learning impairments, said spokeswoman Stephanie Hanner. The Experiential Learning Program offers a hands-on environment for students who have difficulty in traditional academic settings. Hanner said the program provides pre-vocational education in farming, greenhouse gardening and animal care in culinary arts, woodworking and automotive maintenance.

While Stephen tends to the sugarhouse, Cole and Hunter are eager to show off the animals and then, back outside, move from tree to tree, emptying sap buckets. As to syruping, well, it takes warm days and cold nights, both Birtolo, and Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, say.

Merrifield, reached by phone at his Gorham sugar shack earlier this week, said while there have been some “decent” sap runs, and there will be syrup aplenty, warm daytime temperatures haven’t yet emerged, and he predicted the season could extend a bit because of the weather conditions.

Meanwhile, Stephen holds aloft tiny bottles of syrup that show different grades: One called Vermont Fancy, which is the lightest grade, Grade A, Grade A dark amber and then another, darker amber. He’s a fan of the amber variety, he said.

Hunter agrees, “I like the dark, it’s a sweeter taste.”

And sugaring, he said, “is fun.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, Ext. 327 or [email protected].

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