Robb Family Farm and Sugarhouse, Robb Family courtesy photo
Vermont Business Magazine Maple sugaring – as it is called among locals - is a labor of love, and often, as in the Robb Family Farm and Sugarhouse’s case, it is the financial lifeblood that sustains the century-old family farm in Brattleboro, Vermont. The season for harvesting and boiling the maple sap into thick, sweet maple syrup is a short critical one, lasting only several weeks right before Spring.
The Robbs sell Vermont maple syrup, maple candy and maple cream online and in their country store located next to their sugar house. A good portion of their sales is made during that time from people visiting their sugarhouse producing enough money to cover their operating costs for the year. But the coronavirus upended their dependable revenue stream.
This year shortly after they hand-drilled the 5000-plus taps, (They have 6000 this year) sap was flowing and they were in the midst of boiling the sap into syrup, COVID-19 struck close to home. Nine family members from a sugaring operation in Windham County contracted the virus and later twin brothers died. The family believes the virus was brought into their family’s sugarhouse by one of the numerous visitors.
“We made a difficult decision that we knew would impact our bottom line,” explained Helen Robb, Charlie Jr.’s mother and matriarch of the farm. “We closed our sugarhouse and store to visitors. Each year we have numerous repeat visitors and new customers who come to see and experience the process and taste the maple syrup from the year’s production. Sales during this time are critical for the sustainability of our farm.”
L-R - Charlie Jr, his wife Karen, their son Ben, Taylor Thurber, Helen and Charlie Robb Sr. Courtesy Robb Family
Then they discovered they had a commodity that until this point was untapped, plenty of open space. They became a host to RVers looking for a spot to park overnight. Harvest Hosts, an online membership program for self-contained RV owners that allows them unique overnight stays, but no services, at farms like the Robb’s, breweries, wineries and museums. The compensation is a request to purchase products from the Hosts in exchange for an overnight parking space.
“From the virus we suffered a huge financial loss but we found another revenue stream we never knew existed,” said Helen, who has hosted RVs from gigantic busses to tiny teardrop trailers stay overnight next to their pasture that holds a dozen or so beef cattle and their calves. “It saved us,” she said. “And it gave us a new appreciation for our farm.”
Helen said she and her family witnessed travelers arrive totally stressed from the pandemic. Many told stories of losing their jobs and some even sold their homes to purchase their RVs.
In 2019, the Robbs won a VBM Best of Business Award. Photo of Karen and Charles Robb Jr. VBM photo.
“We witnessed their transformation from edgy and stressed upon arrival to more relaxed. We gave them firewood to burn in outdoor firepits and heard them laughing and sometimes singing and playing instruments. Some said they didn’t want to leave the next day. And they all generously bought product from our country store and some have even ordered more online since their stay. We live in such a transient world that I think they felt more grounded after experiencing our history. They were invigorated by the consistency of our family staying in one place for over 100 years. It was rewarding seeing our farm through their eyes and it gave us a renewed appreciation for our legacy. We are still behind our last year’s financials, but we are still here!”
The Robbs plan on remaining as a Harvest Host once their business returns to normal.