For the residents of Spring Lake Ranch, making maple syrup isn’t just about tapping sugarbushes, gathering buckets of sap and boiling it down. It’s also about reducing life to its essentials.
Spring Lake Ranch is a therapeutic working community for men and women 17 and older who’ve been diagnosed with mental illnesses, substance abuse problems and other psychiatric issues. The 500-acre ranch in Cuttingsville, just south of Rutland, was founded in 1932. And its underlying philosophy is aptly demonstrated by its history: The first structure ever built there was the sugarhouse.
The idea behind the program, explains director Becki Bates, is both complex and simple.
“What gives all of our lives meaning and connectedness oftentimes is our work,” she says. “One of the things you lose in mental illness is your sense of meaning and your connection to other people.”
For Spring Lake’s residents — or “ranchers,” as they prefer to be called — that means healing and recovery are best accomplished in a supportive, healthy work environment where they can regain that lost sense of purpose and achievement. And what sweeter achievement is there than turning thousands of gallons of sap into maple syrup?
Spring Lake Ranch doesn’t use the “latest and greatest” technologies for collecting sap and boiling it down, Bates says, nor are the sugaring jobs highly mechanized or specialized. Instead, participants use 2000 old-fashioned buckets to gather the sap, and everyone on the ranch lends a hand throughout the sugaring process.
“We try to be a little more slow paced and quiet, especially in the sugarhouse,” Bates adds. “What we’re trying to do is help people be connected with their work and each other, with people for whom that’s often very difficult.”
The ranchers find the steamy environment of the sugarhouse serene, she says, and it tends to foster deep and contemplative discussions about the meaning of life and people’s relationships to others.
But the sugarhouse isn’t just for therapy. In a typical year, Spring Lake produces between 600 and 800 gallons of syrup of various grades, which are sold online, at the Rutland farmers market and at the ranch’s farm stand on Route 103.
As you might imagine, running a working ranch, which also features animal barns, greenhouses, repair shops and vegetable gardens, isn’t cheap. A typical stay runs six to eight months at a cost of $235 per day. That’s why all proceeds from the sale of the maple syrup go to supporting ranchers who can’t meet those fees on their own.
“It’s a modest contribution,” says Bates, who’s been with Spring Lake since 1980. “But every little bit helps.”