If you were to search the term “maverick” in Merriam-Webster, you’d find two definitions: an unbranded calf and a nonconformist. Both meanings trace back to Texas surveyor Samuel Augustus Maverick.
As the story goes, Maverick—who settled in San Antonio in the early 19th century—accepted cattle as payment for debt but refused to brand them, explains his great, great grandson and Sharon, Vermont resident, Arthur Berndt. That decision didn’t work out so well, as Maverick’s cattle were stolen and branded, but not before maverick became synonymous with nonconformer and unbranded livestock.
When Arthur and his late wife, Anne, bought nearly 575 acres in 1988, they named it Maverick Farm. And like Arthur’s ancestor, the Berndts blazed their own trail while managing the 215-acre sugarbush on their property.
The sugarbush—a stand of sugar maple trees managed for syrup—has been a productive investment since Arthur and Anne took up the business. Last year alone, the farm had 23,000 taps and produced 13,000 gallons of syrup from the tree sap.
“Both Anne and I philosophically believed in food that wasn’t adulterated,” explains Arthur. That logic shaped their decisions to use stainless steel equipment, avoid pesticides and herbicides, bottle their syrup in glass, and certify their sugarbush as organic as early as 1991.
“[Arthur] pioneered using high-quality equipment,” says David Marvin, owner of maple processing and distributing company Butternut Mountain Farm. David has worked with Arthur for nearly 30 years.
And then, there was maple water.
The couple tried selling the bottled maple tree sap around 1992 in addition to their other specialty food products like fruit sauces and pancake mixes. “The maple water was a product that was ahead of its time,” says Arthur. Maple water was a hard sell because it was hard to explain.
“People thought sap was thick and sticky, like sap from a pine tree. It wasn’t at all,” says Arthur. He says it tastes a bit like coconut water. They sold most of their maple water production in the United Kingdom, but there wasn’t enough interest in the US. “[It was] a lot of learning, which is good. That’s what life should be about,” says Arthur.
In the past 30 years, the sugaring process—and product trends—have changed due to technology updates and climate change, says Arthur. In 2020, he will start tapping trees in January. Decades ago, sugarmakers tapped in early March.
“Sugaring has become very sophisticated, very technical, and therefore very expensive to get into in a commercial way,” he says.
What hasn’t changed for this maverick is the joy he gets from sugaring. Arthur, an Illinois native, first jumped into sugaring while working for a dairy farmer in Topsham in the mid-’70s. He recalls hauling milk pails of sap with the farming family that one season. He didn’t sugar again until buying the Sharon property.
“The wonderful part is the sounds out in the woods, actually the lack of sound in the winter, the endorphins you get from running around all day, the ability to eat like a pig when you’re sugaring,” laughs Arthur. Sugaring allows you to get “really fit” in a few weeks, he explains.
Arthur recently conserved 564 acres of his property with the Vermont Land Trust. He and Anne had long discussed conserving it; it was Anne’s dream to do so, says Arthur. “It gave us both a lot of solace.”
Anne was an activist, especially for environmental causes. “Sugaring became a way for us to talk about the environment and what was happening outside of our land,” he says, describing challenges with a thrip infestation, acidic soil, unusually slow understory regrowth, and climate change generally.
The couple relied on a professional forester to best manage the property, as their interest was to steward the land to preserve it for future generations.
“You become aware of the wildlife that’s around you, flora and fauna, and begin to really notice the little things too and how they relate. It all feels satisfying; it feels really good to conserve our land. My wife would be happy,” says Arthur.
He decided to work with VLT in order to preserve the opportunity for future sugaring on the property. Looking forward, he is considering leasing the sugarbush while transitioning out of the active business.
In addition to the sugarbush, the property has healthy forests that serve as great wildlife habitat. All of this is due to the Berndts’ forest management and stewardship practices.
Conserving the property was made possible with funding from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) and Vermont Land Trust.
“[Maverick Farm is] a very productive farm with good soils,” says David, who also serves as a VHCB board member. “I have tremendous respect for [Arthur’s] management of the place. He’s a person of extremely high integrity, and he’s been wonderful to work with over the years,” continues David.