September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"We were taking money out of our savings to spend on electricity and grain," Karen Fortin said. "So we started thinking, 'What can we do to generate more income?'"
Instead of looking to an outside source, they turned to resources they already had - thousands of maple trees.
What better use for maple trees than making sugary sweet maple syrup?
The Fortins tapped their first 1,200 trees in 1998.
"After the first maple season, we had 100 gallons on hand. I looked at it and thought, 'What are we going to do with all that syrup?'" Fortin said.
Today, tapping a total of 10,800 trees on a tube system, they sometimes bottle that much in a week.
Diversification has been a good thing for the Vermont farmers.
The Fortins own and operate Carman Brook Maple and Dairy Farm. The farm has been in Daniel's family since 1911. He is the fourth generation and purchased the farm from his parents in 1990.
"The Fortins have always been dairy farmers," Fortin said of the farm's history.
Today the Fortins milk around 80 Holsteins twice a day, with a total herd number of around 175 head. They milk in a tiestall barn, but it isn't the original barn on the place.
"On Aug. 10, 2010, we had a barn fire and lost our barn," Fortin said.
Luckily, the fire happened during chore time, when the Fortins and their hired help were in the barn. They were able to save all but four calves, but their barn - a 100-year-old tiestall structure - was a total loss.
"The day of the barn fire was our three-year fire inspection," Fortin said. "One thing the inspector did was go through the barn and sniff for smoke. He said we had a beautiful building and they were pleased to insure us."
For two months following the fire, the Fortins milked their herd in a neighboring facility. From there, they were able to rent their herd out to another producer for nearly a year.
"We didn't want to sell the cows," Fortin said. "Daniel had 25 years invested into the herd. We haven't bought a replacement animal since the '80s."
The time off gave the Fortins the chance to plan their new facility. Instead of going with the freestall and parlor setups that were becoming popular in the area, they chose to rebuild a tiestall barn.
They equipped their new barn with many 'creature comforts,' including waterbed mattresses, a tiled feed alley, an automated feeding system and a 'four-season' ventilation system.
"It works in all seasons, depending on the temperature," Fortin said about the ventilation system.
During the warm, sometimes humid, summer months, the barn is cooled by tunnel ventilation. In spring and fall, when the weather is mild, curtains rise and fall for natural ventilation. In winter, vents are set at 45 degrees and will blow the barn air out of chimneys, eliminating condensation.
"It's as dry in here in January as it is today," Fortin said on Aug. 22.
Located in the northwest corner of the state, along the Canadian border and near Lake Champlain, the Fortins have four equal seasons on their farm.
"I like to tell people we have five seasons. The fifth being mud season, which is also maple syrup season," Fortin said.
Along with the cows, the Fortins raise their replacement heifers on site. They also raise crops on their 700-acre farm, putting in 120 acres of hay and 80 acres of corn for silage. They rent an additional 100 acres for bedding and a late cutting of hay.
Typically, Fortin said they get four crops of hay each year. Prior to the fire, they put up around 16,000 small square bales of hay; now most of their crop is custom harvested as haylage, which can be fed in the TMR through their automatic system.
"We do purchase our grain, but we raise our hay, haylage and corn silage," Fortin said.
Daniel manages the dairy and crops end of their farm with help from a few part-time employees. Karen is in charge of their maple syrup businesses, including their production business and their retail business.
To handle the maple syrup, the Fortins built a sugar house in 1999, where they are able to produce and sell their syrup. Production came first, with retail starting as the last of their four children - now 26, 21, 20 and 18 years old - reached school-age.
"When the last boy went to school, I said I wanted a new career. That career was selling," Fortin said. "I was full time on the farm and as a mother. I've always done the books, cooked good meals and raised nice kids, I hope."
The Fortins make around 4,000 gallons of syrup annually now. While some is sold in their sugar house store, much is sold through their Web site, www.cbmaplefarm.com.
Dairy continues to be a strong industry in northwest Vermont, with a solid infrastructure and supportive community, Fortin said. As many of the dairy farms in the area are mid-sized (200-500 cows), farms like the Fortins' are getting to be a minority.
"We are still considered a small family farm," she said.
Accessibility is definite perk of their location.
"I always tell people the best thing about our location is that we live on a dead end dirt road but we are an hour from Burlington, Vt., and Montreal, Quebec," Fortin said. "We have access to a lot of culture."
Although none of the Fortin children are showing interest in the family businesses, the Fortins have no plans to change what they are doing in the near future.
They'll continue producing milk and sweet syrup on their dairy and maple farm in Vermont.