It’s a brisk March morning at Stonewall Farm in Keene, New Hampshire.
More than a hundred people from across New England and dozens of draft horses gather outside for the farm’s 17th annual sap gathering contest. Teams consist of two draft horses hitched to a sap sled, a driver, and two sap runners. Stonewall Farm is one of more than a hundred maple syrup producers celebrating New Hampshire Maple Weekend, though it’s the only one holding a contest of this kind.
At the starting line, David Heisler’s team is among the first to compete.
"See us go!" Heisler shouts as the horses begin a steady trot.
Once the team is in the woods, the two sap gatherers scramble to collect the clear liquid from red buckets which hang from trees along the course. One of the sap gatherers pours the sap into a wooden barrel in the back of the sled.
Farm manager, Glenn Yardley, started the first such contest here at Stonewall. He’d heard Harlow’s Sugar House in Putney, Vermont was doing it.
"So really it was their idea and we just kind of copied it," says Yardley. Harlow’s eventually stopped holding the contest and gave the wooden tanks it used to gather the sap to Stonewall.
“I think it’s a really neat thing," Yardley says. "People kind of get to see the draft horses in action and you don’t get to see that a whole lot in this part of the world anymore."
Stonewall Farm is both a working farm and an educational center, and Yardley says the contest is also a learning opportunity.
"People can see the different methods of collecting the sap. We use buckets, we use tubing— we even have one little section of our orchard that was hooked up to a little bit of vacuum. So they can see that. They can see the old ways of collecting with the horses and the old scoots and tanks."
Fourteen teams complete the course, with the final competitors crossing the finish line as the sun approaches the horizon. After that, teams and supporters gather in the banquet room for the awards ceremony. Glenn Yardley presents trophies to the fastest sap gatherers.
"And we have a new champion," says Yardley. "First place… I think that’s Brad Teeter." The room fills with applause.
Yardley asks is the farm should do it again next year. The response? A unanimous yes.