The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks
To be sure, there are plenty of moments in their day-to-day existence when affection is probably the furthest thing from their minds. Like most young, working-class couples, they worry about money. Unlike most young, working-class couples, they grapple with the challenge of being both domestic and business partners. “When I first started on the farm, there were days I’d sit down in the feed alley and just cry and cry,” Sara told me. “I could see how things were changing in our relationship, how we didn’t have the opportunity to miss each other anymore, because we were always working together.” And not just working, but laboring: tired, cold, wet. Bruised from being kicked by a cow. Or all night feeding the sugaring arch, watching the sap slowly turn darker and thicker and sweeter. Or finishing the last cord of the season’s firewood on Thanksgiving Day, piece after piece after piece, slowly piling up in the bed of the truck like accumulating snow.
I know Jimmy and Sara’s life well enough to know there are elements of it that are just plain hard, and if I’m to be entirely candid, there are times when I think they’re a little crazy. What happens if one of them gets hurt or sick, or simply burns out? What happens if, to borrow a phrase from Jimmy, it’s not enough to be a “bullin’ f**kin’ idiot”? What will happen as they grow older, their bodies less able to absorb the reality of 12-hour days, seven days a week? When I ask them these questions, they shrug their shoulders, and I wonder whether there might come a time when they’d wish they’d chosen a different path. An easier path.
But then I remember something Jimmy once told me, when I asked him what his favorite thing was. I figured he’d say something about riding his Harley, or operating one of his beloved John Deere tractors. Or maybe it would be sugaring; I already knew that he loved to make syrup, that he had “the fever,” as sugarmakers like to say. Jimmy didn’t hesitate for a second: “My favorite thing is when it’s raining and cold, and I’ve been working outside all day, and it’s 5:00 o’clock, and it’s time to go to the barn.”
For a moment, I thought he was joking, but the smile on his face struck me as sincere—as sincere a smile as I’d ever seen: “It’s just so warm and comfy in there, with all the cows.” And now Sara was smiling, too, and I could tell that she knew exactly what her husband was talking about. “Man,” he said, “I sure do love that.”
Finally, sugaring time. On a Wednesday night in mid-March, we convene in Jimmy and Sara’s sugarhouse after evening chores. The sap has run hard all day, and there are thousands of gallons collected in the big gathering tank; the night before, Jimmy was up at Ian’s new sugarhouse until nearly midnight, helping his brother work the kinks out of his system. Ian had purchased the sugarbush only months before and had managed to assemble the house and rig with nary a day to spare, while maintaining a full-time work schedule.
By the time I arrive at Jimmy and Sara’s sugarhouse, the fire in the arch is roaring, and steam is just beginning to rise from the pans. It’s still cool in the house, but it won’t be for much longer; every 10 minutes or so, Jimmy throws a few long sticks of wood on the fire, and slowly the temperature begins to rise. Slowly, the sap begins to simmer, and then boil. The steam in the room thickens until it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make out a face on the other side of the arch.
Within an hour, Jimmy starts drawing finished syrup off the front pan, pumping it through filters and then into the canner, where Sara and her mother, Nancy, fill pint, quart, half-gallon, and gallon containers. The previous season was something of a bust, and the Ackermanns have a long list of orders already lined up. There’s serious money in that evaporator pan; over the course of the night, they might make 70 or 80 gallons, enough to ensure that the bank will get its annual balloon payment on the sugarbush mortgage, and maybe even a little extra to put away for the baby.
As the arch grows ever hotter, the syrup begins flowing faster and faster, and Jimmy’s mood becomes as buoyant as the steam rising from the pan. “We’re rollin’ something wicked!” he calls out. “Now, I ain’t no sugarmaker, but I’m pretty sure that’s some fancy syrup.” Then, he breaks into song: “That’s fancy syrup, that’s fancy syruuuup!” Across the room, Sara might be rolling her eyes, but I can’t quite tell; the steam plays tricks on my vision.
At midnight, I depart. There’s still plenty of boiling to be done, and it seems unlikely that Jimmy and Sara will be getting to bed anytime before 2:00 a.m., only 150 minutes before their alarm is set to rouse them for morning chores. They laugh about it and don’t complain; this is just the way it is during sugaring. They can’t boil during the day, because evening chores will almost surely interrupt the process, and the evaporator needs constant tending. So they boil at night and sleep during the handful of hours between the end of the boil and the early-morning urgency of their cows’ milk-swollen udders.
As I exit the sugarhouse, I turn back for just a moment, and again I have that sense I had in the milkroom so many months before, when it felt as though I could see into Jimmy and Sara Ackermann’s future. Through the steam, I can see Jimmy sitting on his stool by the draw-off valve, monitoring the temperature and sugar content of the finished syrup. Sara stands beside him, close enough that her pregnant belly rests against Jimmy’s shoulder. Is it merely a trick of the steam that makes it feel as though 30 years from now, I’ll visit the sugarhouse only to find Jimmy sitting on his stool by the draw-off valve, with his wife beside him?