For some, profession and passion are unacquainted strangers. For many career and technical education students, however, the two are tight-knit friends. That’s certainly the case with Austin Jenks, an entrepreneurial 18-year-old senior at Lyndon (Vt.) Institute, who’s finding that sweet spot where “earning a living” and “loving what you do” are one and the same.
For the last nine years, Jenks admits he’s been addicted to “sugaring.” Don’t worry; that’s not some shady youth ritual you’ve never heard of. It’s actually the process of turning the sap from maple trees into that delicious syrup you may have poured on some pancakes this morning. “It’s a lot of fun,” the student says. “Something that I don’t ever want to stop.”
It all started on Jenks’ ninth birthday, when his step-grandfather — who’d once operated his own sugaring operation — gave him a five-gallon sap bucket. “I asked him, ‘What do I do with this?’ ” Jenks remembers. “He said it was for making maple syrup. You tap the tree, hook the bucket onto it, then collect the sap. I went, ‘Oh,’ and I haven’t looked back since.”
Jenks began with two taps and started filling that sap bucket. More taps followed quickly, and a neighbor taught him the boiling process that turns sap into syrup.
“Sugaring is a science,” he explains. “Sun, wind, temperature … it all has an effect on how the sap runs. Big operations have vacuum pumps to lower the barometric pressure in the tree and let the sap run more freely.
“Sap is about 80-90 percent water, but the temperature it takes to make it boil is higher than water because of the sugar. It usually takes about 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup.”
If it sounds like Jenks knows what he’s talking about, it’s because he does. You could say the proof is in the “pudding,” but it’s really in the syrup he sells through word of mouth under his self-created “Country Hill Maple” label. “I double my sales every year,” Jenks says. “I’ve been able to build a real good customer base.”
Something else Jenks built earned him a trip to last year’s SkillsUSA Championships in Louisville, Ky., where he competed in Welding Sculpture. His project was a miniature replica of a working sugar house, a building where the sap-to-syrup boiling process takes place. The experience has only made him more passionate about his sugaring.
“My cousin competed in Welding at nationals in 2014,” Jenks explains, “and he encouraged me to join SkillsUSA, too. I did some research and really liked what I saw. I thought if I could learn to weld, I could make or fix things used in sugaring.”
‘A real big jump-start’
As Jenks learned more about the competitive opportunities SkillsUSA provides, he decided to veer slightly from his cousin’s path and try Welding Sculpture.
“I always liked art, drawing, taking photos,” he says. “So I wondered what I could build using my welding. Something in my mind just popped, and I decided to build a model of the sugar house I’d like to have in later years.”
The process wasn’t nearly as easy as Jenks imagined, but he believes the lessons he’s learned are invaluable.
“I realized pretty fast I couldn’t just throw something together,” he notes. “You have to design it, lay out the dimensions correctly, make sure there’s enough space inside to move around. I think that’s given me a real big jump-start for when I actually do build a real sugar house.”
Jenks didn’t earn a medal at the national competition, but he’s rightly proud of his creation.
“Everyone in Vermont knew immediately what it was,” he laughs. “But at nationals, some people thought I’d made a [moonshine] still.”
While the project needed some explaining, what Jenks has gained through SkillsUSA is obvious, and not just from a technical standpoint.
“It also helped in leadership,” he says. “I was an officer in my chapter, and it really helped me to see what natural leadership is all about.”
Jenks is currently focused on precision machining, a natural progression in his view, which he’ll also apply to sugaring. He plans to attend college next year with an eye toward engineering. Whatever his future holds, something sweet is bound to follow. As sappy as that sounds.