(Editor's Note: During the "4 Seasons" series, which begins this month, we are following four workers in different jobs during March, June, September and December. By the end of the year, we should have a better understanding of how the seasons affect work life in the Olympic Region, at least for these individuals.)
KEENE VALLEY - For Rivermede Farm operator Rob Hastings, the first week in March was a time to watch the weather and wait for Mother Nature to cooperate. It's time to make maple syrup in the Adirondacks.
"March is sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar and prepping for the plants," Hastings said, petting his new kitty while the two 14-year-old dogs hung around, one by the fireplace and another at his feet at the kitchen table. "I just seeded tomatoes and onions yesterday, so we're already starting to grow indoors."
Rob Hastings, operator of Rivermede Farm in Keene Valley
(News photo — Andy Flynn)
This is Hastings' 26th season as a farmer on the land his family owns - all 30 members of the clan. While most of the farmhouse was built later in the 19th century and popular as a hotel called the Estes House, the section where he spoke with the Lake Placid News dates to 1802. It's an old farm bordering the East Branch of the AuSable River.
"Basically, I caretake for my family, and they let me make my living off the land," Hastings said.
Income for the Rivermede Farm comes from maple syrup, crops, a store on state Route 73, eggs and chicken sold as meat birds.
"We used to have a flock of sheep here, but they became a little troublesome and didn't mix well with vegetables," Hastings said. "When you get 22 hungry mouths running around the garden tromping and taking a bite out of everything, even 20 minutes of that is devastating, so we phased them out."
Hastings grew up in Princeton, N.J. and had spent three years in the Peace Corps in the Caribbean, running a 60-acre farm as a marketing co-op, when his family asked him to take care of the farm. He was happy for the change.
"I missed the change of season the most," Hastings said. "Every season moves you into hurry, hurry before the next season. It keeps me motivated, and it's pretty."
Sugaring today is not the same as his first March at Rivermede Farm.
"Considering it was all wood-fired and buckets, and I helped a neighbor with a horse and wagon, it was very different," Hastings said. "We did 300 buckets, and I probably worked three times as hard as opposed to the thousand taps and tubing."
Hastings switched from buckets to plastic tubing about 20 years ago.
"Sugaring is like a disease," Hastings said. "You get sap on the brain. All I'd think about is the temperature and the perfect condition for running."
Hastings would have liked to tap his trees in January, to take advantage of the January thaw, but it didn't happen this year until February.
"The one year I did tap in January, we made a quarter of our crop, which is substantial," Hastings said, "especially with a year like this that we may have what we had two years ago and get into March and warm up and stay warm. It was the lousiest sugar season we ever had, right after (Tropical Storm) Irene and having to replace the tubing that had gotten washed away."
To say maple syrup is an important part of Rivermede Farm's income is an understatement. It's about 25 percent of his annual business. If he didn't have sugaring, "That would be a substantial income loss."
Other than tending to the chickens - feeding them and collecting eggs twice a day - it was quiet at the Rivermede Farm this past week.
"It's pretty quiet because we're all tapped out, and it's been so cold that all the outdoor projects are on hold," Hastings said. "I'm sure we could go out and cut wood and things like that, but I'm kind of a fair-weather guy."
Normally, he would be right into the maple sugaring now, but it's been so cold lately.
"What we're having is not that unusual, but it's just the duration that's unusual," Hastings said of the cold snap.
As Hastings waits for Mother Nature to cooperate, he's looking for ideal maple sugaring conditions: temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s during the day and lows in the 20s during the night.
"That resets the trees, and you get good sap flows that way," Hastings said.
In all, Hastings has a little more than 1,000 taps and makes between 400 and 500 gallons of syrup a year.
Hastings has one to one-and-a-half employees right now - one taking care of the store and another helping out on the farm, especially with the maple sugaring. Hastings set up the operation so he could boil down the sap by himself. Last year, when he didn't have anyone at the store, he'd have to close it up to make maple syrup. This year, the store's chef opens the shop, and the store's manager is laid off in the slower winter months this year.
"She's already knocking on the door, itching," Hastings said.
Hastings would like to hire more people for the winter, but finances are tight, especially after spending $90,000 in flood repairs after Tropical Storm Irene's damage and sinking in more money to fix the driveway after last year's flooding. There have been 13 floods since Irene hit in August 2011.
"It was really depressing after the flood," Hastings said. "I had to rebuild everything. I did find out that repairing greenhouses is harder than putting up a brand new house, much harder."
Hastings is excited about one new project. A state grant will help pay for the installation of a circulating solar hot-water system to heat the greenhouses, which will help sustain the winter crops, such as spinach, lettuce, herbs and carrots.
"We normally have winter crops that make it through the winter with no heat, but this fall we had a snap of weather that went from the 60s to 10 below within two days and the plants didn't like that," Hastings said. "So we lost most of our winter crops."
With the new solar system and propane backup, Rivermede Farm won't have to rely on fuel oil anymore.
"Fuel oil tanks on a flood plain just don't mix," Hastings said.
Since Hastings and other local farmers are at the mercy of the weather, this solar project will help him "fight the mood swings more."
The solar project has reinvigorated Hastings' outlook, especially on the heels of Irene, and will help him hire some year-round employees. He may even be able to have time for himself in the future and possibly go on a vacation.
"What's that?" Hastings said.