As one of the sweetest businesses in North Central Massachusetts finishes up its don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it season, the proprietor gets ready to tap into the next generation.
Mark Ewen is a one-man operation who has managed affairs at Ewen's Sleepy Hollow Sugarhouse, situated off Route 2A in Lunenburg, for most of his life. At 55 years old, he keeps track of his sugaring years in terms of the Super Bowl: The year he turned 10 was a big one for both the NFL and for the maple trees surrounding his childhood home, where he still resides. Involved in scouting and 4H from a young age, it was the year he discovered the sappy world that lived outside his door. By the time he hit adulthood, the family had outgrown their grassroots effort and began operating a real New England sugarhouse.
"My parents supported the endeavor, they always helped us out when we found something we wanted to pursue," he said. In fact, for many years, the entire family pitched in to help produce springtime crops of the golden goodness. "We never had employees — it was family. That's it."
But now at the other end of his long career in the world of maple-sugaring and without the help of his father, who passed away just last year, Ewen has found a way to keep the sugarhouse in operation but let himself go into a dormancy, not unlike his beloved maples.
"It just makes sense," Ewen says of his informal agreement with local hay and lime farmer Jim Lattanzi of Hollis Hills Farm in Lunenburg. At 27 years old, Jim has not only the interest in sugaring but also has the physical abilities and the schedule that allows for complete dedication during the six weeks — more or less — that the process takes place. From setting taps and hauling buckets to the long hours boiling the sap and getting the syrup bottled, the job can be tedious, labor-intensive and time-consuming.
"In the winter I am plowing, in the summers I am busy with my lime business but springtime is sort of a down time for me," Lattanzi said. "And I've got the time and the interest in what's going on here."
Lattanzi and his wife started tapping trees on their farm for the first time this year, and the process quickly got away from them. Having driven by the sugarhouse countless times in his lifetime, Lattanzi decided it couldn't hurt to pay a visit.
It wasn't the first time Ewen had been approached by a younger farmer or would-be syrup producer who got in too far too fast.
"There's been a few times over the years where a guy running a backyard sugar operation shows up and wants some help because they are a little overwhelmed — they know I have the equipment and it's no big deal here," Ewen said. "But Jim is going to help keep the heritage going now that I am winding down and he's just winding in."
Throughout his decades of sugaring, Ewen has seen a few changes that have had an effect on business — like the recent push to buy local.
"It's helped a lot in the wholesale market," said Ewen, who supplies syrup to a number of local restaurants. "It's been a nice niche for me."
Another avenue that has opened up is networking with other businesses — like Wormtown Brewing Co., which just ordered 10 gallons of syrup for the development of a maple beer.
Ewen is at the mercy of Mother Nature. A bad year happens when January and February are extremely cold, and then March leaps out of the gate and spring comes rushing in. "That's not good," he said. "The blossoming accelerates like mad and it's all over before it even began."
According to Ewen, there's been no need to take online orders or to advertise any more than he does.
"I've always found we were able to move the product locally," he said, "so that's what I continue to do."
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