University of Vermont

AGAINST THE ODDS: MAN BEHIND THE SCENES MAKES MAPLE SEASON SUCCEED

Also a Fighter Jet Mechanic and Master of Movie Trivia and Bad Puns

Brian Stowe finishing a batch of maple syrup in the Sumner Hill Williams Sugarhouse at UVM's Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill. In 1990, the legendary Williams hired Stowe. In April 2012 Stowe dedicated the Outstanding Staff Award he received to Williams memory.

A lot can conspire against a successful maple sugaring season: tangled tubing, leaky collection barrels, clogged taps, broken machinery, faulty gauges, stuck vehicles or a run of bad weather – to name a few things. If you add to these variables of a regular sugaring operation, a layer of scientific experiments on sap collection, maple production and forestry practices, you can see that things get really complicated.

Brian Stowe is the smooth operator of both sugaring and sugaring science at UVM. He makes sure that every single thing is ready ahead of time for that day the sap starts running at the Proctor Maple Research Center. He keeps everything working during the demanding but short sugaring season and he anticipates the future.

Stowe is charged with managing the 215-acre property, its more than 2,800 tapped maple trees and a state-of-the-art sugaring operation at three sites. Proctor produces up to 1,200 gallons of syrup annually, in fact, over the past seven years, Proctor’s maple production has been three times Vermont’s per-tap average. And don’t forget, little Vermont is the number one maple producer in the nation – 1.14 million gallons of syrup in 2011, with an annual economic impact over $220 million.

Mark Isselhardt made an important point about how maple research differs from most scientific experimentation at UVM. (Isselhardt is a Proctor maple research technician who began as a work-study student in the 1990s). He said, “the window of time available for experiments is small and unpredictable.” That’s why Stowe’s careful attention to issues large and small and keen ability to anticipate problems and address them ahead of time is indispensible. 

Stowe earned his bachelor of science degree in forestry from the UVM in 1985. He was hired in 1990 as a UVM research technician by the Vermont maple industry legend Sumner Williams himself. Stowe passed an advanced logger training and chainsaw safety course – key to safety at Proctor Center and any other sugarbush he visits. He was promoted four times to his current position.

Over the years, he has contributed to scientific, trade and UVM Extension publications and made presentations across the country. He often provides Extension the technical information, background and expertise it needs to carry out its maple educational programs. And he welcomes visitors to the Center – he’s as fluent at speaking to scientists and sugarmakers as to school children.

Recently he helped negotiate UVM’s acquisition of 30 acres of research land adjacent to the Proctor Maple Research Center.

But not many people realize that Brian Stowe is a lead mechanic on fighter jets for the Vermont National Guard, where he has served for 17 years. So it's no surprise that he can work with complex modern reverse osmosis machines, evaporators and tubing layouts and innovate at every opportunity. He helps colleagues design experiments that both increase scientific knowledge and serve the maple industry.

Speaking of the maple industry, Stowe is a member/leader of seven state sugarmakers organizations and maintains regular contact with maple industry leaders nationwide. He is often a spokesperson to the news media, which contact the research center like clockwork each spring and fall – including that memorable year when National Public Radio aired a spoof on April Fool’s day on how maple trees explode when not tapped. The phone calls to the Proctor Maple Center picked up markedly that year.

It seems like Brian Stowe is everywhere.

Dave Barrington, chair of plant biology, the department in which the Proctor Maple Research Center resides, told this story that says it all:

Brian Stowe is at every College event. He is at the alumni dinner, advisory council lunches, meals that celebrate prominent faculty and staff and graduation socials. He appears at University events too – often ones where the president is most eager to impress parties with the prowess of UVM’s place in the Vermont landscape.

However, you’ll never actually see Brian Stowe at these events.

What you see is his maple syrup.

Brian is maple syrup. 

"If Brian Stowe is maple syrup, then he is surely Grade A. He is most assuredly top of the line, and an outstanding staff member of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences," said Tom Vogelmann, the College's dean, on April 20 as he presented Stowe with the College's 2012 Outstanding Staff Award.

Stowe was among several award recipients on Honors Day in Benedict Auditorium on campus. Pat Erickson received the College's Joseph E. Carrigan Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. More than 85 students received some 40 academic and research achievement awards.