End of a sweet run, South Face Farm maple restaurant makes this syrup season its last
The stack of pancakes is tall, and the line of hungry eaters-to-be waiting to get at them is growing.
It’s sugaring-season at South Face Farm, where throngs of weekend visitors turning out for pancakes, waffles, fritters and more has been a nearly 30-year tradition. But that may be coming to an end, with owner Tom McCrumm’s announced retirement at the end of the six-week restaurant season that began last weekend.
The 68-year-old maple farmer says, “I’m just tired of doing it … One of the big stresses for me is January and February. There’s so much to do to get both sides of this operation ready … all of the equipment to make syrup and work in the woods tree tapping, AND I have a (restaurant) business which has been shuttered for 10 months.” Try as he does to prepare, things never seem to be as he left them 10 months before.
While he’ll still keep plenty busy running the 75-acre Spruce Corner Road farm with its 1,800 taps, in addition to the roughly 2,000 taps on neighboring land — taps that ultimately feed his sugarhouse evaporators and, of course, the 300 or more people who turn out each weekend to eat — McCrumm says he’ll be happy to unload the headaches associated with running a restaurant.
Headaches like arranging for a staff each season, mostly of neighborhood teenagers, like fixing one of two industrial-grade waffle makers this Saturday after it kept tripping the circuit breaker, and then fixing the fryolator Sunday morning. And then responding to a call that a toilet wasn’t flushing. (He discovered, after disconnecting the water supply line to the tank, the problem was that about 10 yellow-jacket carcasses had somehow jammed the flotation valve.)
“Or else it’s somebody’s car out in the parking lot has its alarm beeping. Or someone’s car is stuck in a snowbank or stuck in the mud, or locked their keys in the car,” says the gray-haired, gray-mustached farmer, knowing that the people who begin lining up for waffles or French toast each week before the doors open at 8:30 a.m. aren’t necessarily aware of the behind-the-scenes trials. They’re in the vestibule looking in on the sugaring evaporator, at dioramas showing how trees produce sap, or a wall of photos that show former Spruce Corner maple producer Linwood Leshure with his father sugaring with oxen in 1920. (Leshure, who died in 1997 at the age of 93, built and operated the sugarhouse from 1951 to 1982.)
On another wall is a map with sticky notes showing where people have come from since the McCrumms opened the restaurant in 1986: California and Oregon, but also Bhutan, Morocco, Crete, Afghanistan and Argentina. Most visitors have been from up and down the Pioneer Valley.
McCrumm, who together with his wife Judy, bought the farm in May 1984, had done sugaring with a friend in Vermont but then was surprised to discover when he moved in 1976 to an area north of Roanoke, Va., that there was maple production there as well.
“I was visiting a sugarhouse in Highland County, Va., and I saw people line up, come in the door, walk past the evaporator, ask a few questions, go over to the sales counter, spend money and then go out the other door, and I said, ‘Wow, this works. You can really bring income to a farm by selling on the farm.’ It’s what’s now popularly known as agri-tourism.”
Before the ice storm of 2008, which caused tremendous damage to high-elevation trees and sugaring pipeline, McCrumm also collected sap around as far as Plainfield and South Ashfield, miles away. He now keeps his sugaring closer to home.
In addition to the restaurant — which started with a simple menu of pancakes, eggs, and sausage — McCrumm also took on the job as coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. What made it bad was that all three of those jobs peaked in a compressed sugaring season straddling late winter and early spring, so that McCrumm was left with checking his sugaring pipeline and other equipment, preparing the restaurant for its six-week season and updating the website and fielding media calls for the association with unanswerable questions like “When will the sap start flowing?”
This season, McCrumm believes, it will be at least another 10 days before he starts boiling, because the sap is so frozen in the trees.
Using Gray’s Sugarhouse in Ashfield as something of a model, McCrumm expanded his kitchen and his menu to include corn fritters, french toast with homemade cinnamon bread, waffles and bacon with Bart’s ice cream, Adam’s cider doughnuts, and yes, pickles. Grays closed eight years ago, and with South Face Farm closing its eatery, Franklin County will be left with only three operating sugarhouse restaurants.
Williams Sugarhouse in Deerfield opened for the season on Friday, while Gould’s Sugarhouse and Davenport’s Sugarhouse restaurants, both in Shelburne, plan to open for the season on Saturday.
“I’m not just selling pancakes; you can do that at home,” says McCrumm, who each 12-day season goes through 40 or 50 gallons of pancake batter prepared earlier in the week by neighbor Lael Boesell, and about 300 pounds of flour, 400 pounds of bacon and 280 gallons of locally produced Our Family Farms milk. “What I’m selling is an opportunity see the history and culture and tradition of New England still going on.”
Although McCrumm says he’s been talking to several people who are interested in operating the restaurant, he’s advised each of them that they’d have to be out of their minds to think of doing so.
“We will continue to make maple syrup, but we want to simplify our lives somewhat and enjoy a bit more time to ski and do other things as time permits during the February-April time period,” the McCrumms wrote in a statement that appears on the sugarhouse menu.
Now, McCrumm says, “I’ll only have one full-time job, and not two.”